ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) – The Blue Ridge Parkway is closed between Vinton and Bonsack due to a deferred maintenance backlog and our region’s situation is far from alone.
The Blue Ridge Parkway closure from the Stewartsville Road (Route 24) exit to the Blue Ridge Boulevard (Route 221) exit is a result of decades of not addressing a growing list of maintenance needs. Officials with the National Park Service have not given a timeline for re-opening the road, only saying the closure is due to roadway surface conditions. Attempts to reach representatives for the Blue Ridge Parkway were unsuccessful, but documents obtained by WFXRtv.com show a deferred maintenance backlog at the U.S. Department of Interior totaling nearly $20 billion. According to the office of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $186 million exists along the Blue Ridge Parkway. As recently as Fiscal Year 2002, the backlog stood at $395 million.
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Interior Department’s total backlog in Fiscal Year 2018 was $19.38 billion spread among four agencies – Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS), and Forest Service (FS). The largest portion of the deferred maintenance backlog fell under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service at $11.92 billion and the problem appears to be getting worse.
“The agencies assert that continuing to defer the maintenance and repair of facilities accelerates the rate of these facilities’ deterioration, increases their repair costs, and decreases their value,” the CRS report suggests.
If the total maintenance backlog seems high, you might be surprised to learn that the National Park Service has 11,988 paved roads under management. It has several thousand additional unpaved roads. This includes major commuter roads such as the George Washington Memorial Parkway in northern Virginia, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland, and less traveled roads like the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina.
Roads owned and maintained by the National Park Service constitute 57% of the agency’s deferred maintenance backlog, or $6.79 billion. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that 70% of the backlog is attributed to infrastructure more than 60 years old.
Whether it be crumbling bridges, potholes, or washed out roads, a risk to public safety exists as long as the deferred maintenance backlog at the National Park Service is not addressed. That is where Congress comes in.
Bills in the House and Senate would address the current backlog. S. 500, the Restore Our Parks Act, is co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and a bipartisan group of 38 other senators. It would fund repairs to the aging infrastructure in the Parks Service portfolio by diverting existing revenue from other government agencies to the National Parks Service. H.R. 1225, the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of more than 300 House members, including local Congressmen Denver Riggleman (R-5th District) and Ben Cline (R-6th District). The House bill would create the National Park Service and Public Lands Restoration Fund to address the backlog using revenue from energy royalties.
Steve Allen, a cyclist from Virginia Beach told WFXRtv.com this week that he was caught off guard by the parkway closure in Roanoke County.
“I’m glad they’re doing it,” Allen said. “[I’m a little] bit surprised because the 50 miles I’ve ridden so far, the roads are in great shape. I’m not really sure what they’re doing up there. But if it needs to be worked on, I’m glad they’re going to do it.”
In an interview from Washington, Sen. Kaine said just because motorists and National Park visitors can’t see problems, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
“The closure of the six-mile stretch near Roanoke is evidence of that,” he said. “It’s degraded conditions that the passerby, the motorist may not see but people who are doing inspections do.”
Kaine said passage of the Senate’s bill depended on Congress making adequate appropriations to address the high cost of the deferred maintenance backlog.
House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he believed the House bill had a good chance of passage since it would not appropriate additional funding or take funding from existing programs.
“If there is an excess, you take the first $1 billion of that excess and you put that towards payments of National Parks and other kinds of public lands that are necessary,” Bishop said.
The House bill made its way out of committee with a vote of 36-2 and Bishop thinks it stands a good chance of moving to the full House for a vote during the 116th Congress.
The Senate bill, introduced in February, has not yet had a hearing, though Kain said there is a lot of support for America’s National Parks.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Kaine added.
“With 308 co-sponsors (of the House bill), I am confident that eventually in this session (of Congress) it’s going to be heard and it’s going to be passed,” Bishop added.” You can’t stop that many people who are in agreement of the right thing to do.”
No matter, travelers along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway will have to follow the detour signs east of Roanoke indefinitely, an unfortunate reality when the leaves along the parkway are preparing to turn shades of bright red and orange this Fall.
* View a real-time map of closures along the Blue Ridge Parkway by clicking here.