Just how the National Park Service could have so badly bungled its attempt to get a key federal grant to help repair the decaying Arlington Memorial Bridge remained unclear Wednesday, as the agency and other key players remained mum and some officials worked behind the scenes to salvage a way forward.
Park Service officials said Wednesday that they still hoped to meet Thursday night’s deadline for applying for the grant, and Park Service supporters were making another run at D.C. officials to provide the required local co-sponsorship of the application, although legal and other hurdles remained.
There still was no explanation for how federal officials could mishandle a major opportunity to secure a desperately needed grant to help cover the cost of such a high-priority project. The application the Park Service has been working on seeks $150 million from the FASTLANE program, which was created in December. Given the nationwide competition for the $800 million in available FASTLANE money, it would be unlikely that the Park Service would receive that full amount in the first year of the program, a key argument for applying now.
In a letter Tuesday, a frustrated group of influential members of Congress representing the Washington region pushed the Park Service, “in the strongest possible terms,” to apply for the program this year, given that Park Service officials had warned that the agency must launch the bridge-rehab project by 2019 to avoid a possible shutdown by 2021.
A Park Service spokesman said that Director Jonathan B. Jarvis was unavailable for an interview Wednesday but reiterated the agency’s stance that it still hopes to apply in time.
Among the issues for D.C. officials: By signing on to a such a federal grant application, would the District be on the hook financially now or in the future? Also, in a city dotted with national parks, from the Mall and Rock Creek Park to tiny patches of grass in neighborhoods, what precedent might be set by taking some formal responsibility for a federal asset as important as the Memorial Bridge? And even if the District could be persuaded to do so, would it even be feasible given the accelerated timeline?
Virginia was another potential partner. But Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said he did not receive a request for Virginia to become a co-sponsor on the project until last week, which was too late to make anything happen even if officials had their many questions about the project answered. Virginia’s support would be contingent on the General Assembly’s approval, Layne said.
But underlying the struggle over the corroded, 1930s-era monument spanning the Potomac River is a broader reality for the Park Service, which will celebrate its 100th birthday this summer. As is true with U.S. infrastructure in general, years of Washington gridlock over spending have left a gaping hole in funding for the Park Service.
The $250 million it would cost to overhaul the Memorial Bridge would eat up much of the Park Service’s budget for transportation fixes nationwide. The agency is set to receive $268 million this year in dedicated funds for transportation projects, plus a more-modest amount allocated in the annual budget process.
“It’s unfortunate the Park Service is not getting just a direct allocation from Congress to fix this problem. Instead, they need to scramble,” said Laura Loomis, deputy vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, which pushes for more funding. “There are around 10,000 miles of roads in the parks, and there are 1,400-plus bridges, and there are 80-plus different kinds of transit systems in the parks, and they all depend on [those limited funds] to keep them safe and operating, so it’s not like they can just divert that money for a year to fix the Memorial Bridge.”
As of September, the Park Service listed $11.9 billion in “deferred maintenance” projects spanning its roads, trails, buildings and other facilities.
Layne said he is eager to help the Park Service and looks forward to working together long-term, beyond the immediate grant deadline, which the state can’t meet.
More broadly, Layne said he believes that the Park Service is beset by problems not of its own making.
“I don’t think for a minute they sat over there and had all this money and didn’t do anything,” Layne said. “We’ve watched infrastructure, at all levels of government over the last 50 years, deteriorate.”
Ultimately, the Memorial Bridge is a responsibility of the federal government, just as the federal highway system is, and the federal government needs to provide the funds to maintain both, he said.
“I get it. It’s politically hard. But it’s political will,” Layne said. “Does that mean taking something from somewhere else or raising taxes? Obviously it does. . . . Our whole way of life is based on infrastructure. We just assume it’s going to be there, but it’s very costly.”