Smokies one of many national parks awaiting millions in repairs

National parks in North Carolina and South Carolina face $442.7 million in backlogged infrastructure repairs, according to a new analysis by the National Park Service.

Nationally, the deferred maintenance backlog is $11.5 billion, which includes work on roads, bridges, visitor centers, campgrounds, trails and water systems that has been delayed for more than one year.

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The National Park Service said the backlog is caused by aging facilities, increased use and smaller budgets. Deferred maintenance increased from $11.3 billion in 2013, the most recent year available.

"As we invite more Americans to discover the special places in the National Park System during our centennial celebration, we need to have facilities that can accommodate them and provide the best possible visitor experience," said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. The park service turns 100 in 2016.

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The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has $243.9 million worth of work waiting to be done. Most of that — $180 million — is in backlogged repairs to paved roads, parking areas, bridges and tunnels.

The North Carolina portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is due for $64.9 million of work. The remaining $179 million is in the Tennessee portion.

One project is an $8 million rehabilitation of the Cades Cove and Sugarlands water and wastewater systems, which help provide potable water for campers and treat waste, according to park spokeswoman Dana Soehn.

"Deferring these backlog maintenance needs puts our natural resources at risk," she said.

The park reports 10 million visitors and 285,000 campers each year.

Another project is a $24 million replacement of the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which is 50 years old and needs improvements for people with limited mobility, eyesight and hearing, Soehn said.

The park headquarters, which is 75 years old, has inadequate heating, cooling and electrical systems and is in line for a $7 million renovation, she said. Park officials also say $3 million is needed to renovate the campgrounds, picnic areas and day-use facilities in the Deep Creek area of the park.

The other major North Carolina site with a significant backlog is the Blue Ridge Parkway, with $478.7 million in deferred maintenance. Almost all of that is in road and bridge work. The park service says it needs $267.7 million to improve the section of the parkway passing through North Carolina.

Maintaining the national parks is a annual concern on Capitol Hill as lawmakers balance the parks' popularity with the $18 trillion federal debt.

At a recent hearing before the House Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees the park service, members questioned why President Barack Obama's administration is requesting $300 million for additional land acquisition.

"A reasonable person might conclude that a federal agency with a deferred maintenance backlog of $11 billion should first take care of the land it currently administers before acquiring new land," said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., a member of the Natural Resources Committee, agreed.

"We're $18 trillion in debt and have a responsibility to make tough decisions that are in the best interest of the taxpayer," Duncan said Tuesday. "If the administration would be willing to make the maintenance backlog a priority, there are enough resources available to solve this problem."

The Obama administration's fiscal 2016 budget calls for a $433 million increase, to $3 billion, for national parks. The park service estimates its staffing would increase by almost 500 full-time employees.

The budget request includes $242.8 million to deal with the most urgent deferred maintenance.

Bill Theobald contributed to this report.

Contact Mary Troyan at mtroyan@usatoday.com.


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