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National Mall sinks into disrepair while funds go elsewhere

Popular national park crumbling, victim of neglect

Thousands of events, including festivals, protests, and July 4 fireworks, play out on the mall. In January, the park service estimated that 1.8 million people crammed into the area to witness the inauguration. The millions of visitors have trampled the soil into virtual concrete. Thousands of events, including festivals, protests, and July 4 fireworks, play out on the mall. In January, the park service estimated that 1.8 million people crammed into the area to witness the inauguration. The millions of visitors have trampled the soil into virtual concrete. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
By Brian Westley and Brett Zongker
Associated Press / July 26, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Crumbling sidewalks near the Jefferson Memorial are sinking into the Tidal Basin. Reflecting pools are filled with green, smelly water. And millions of visitors have trampled the soil into virtual concrete where grass can’t grow.

The National Mall is in danger of becoming a national disgrace.

“It does not deserve the name National Mall,’’ said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting member of Congress. “We ought to call it something else until it looks decent.’’

The Obama administration recently steered $55 million in economic stimulus money toward repairs, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says that is only a down payment on the nearly $400 million needed to fix up a national park that draws more visitors than Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite combined.

An Associated Press analysis of congressional spending since 2005 found that the mall has been at a disadvantage in competing for extra funds doled out by lawmakers, compared with sites that are represented by powerful members of Congress. The mall is in Washington, which has no vote in the House or Senate.

Last year, when dozens of ducks and ducklings died of avian botulism because the water in a mall pool near the Capitol was fetid, and as urgent repairs were needed to stop the Jefferson Memorial’s sea wall from sinking into the mud, the Senate killed a $3.5 million earmark for the mall.

Instead, funding went to projects back home. All told, Congress sent home more than $181 million in earmarks through the National Park Service budget last year - an election year - according to data compiled by the group Taxpayers for Common Sense and analyzed by the AP. Nearly half that money was driven by lawmakers who were on the House and Senate appropriations committees.

Earmarks are used to boost projects both large and small. In 2008, there was $20 million for dam removal at Olympic National Park in Washington state with help from Representative Norm Dicks, Democrat of Washington, who oversees Park Service funding; Senator Robert Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sent more than $3.3 million home to West Virginia, including $123,000 to restore a Mother’s Day Shrine. Lawmakers sent millions more home to restore county courthouses and local historical sites that aren’t part of the national parks.

Government watchdogs say earmarks corrupt the budget process.

“We’re making spending decisions on the basis of political muscle, rather than project merit,’’ said Stephen Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“Because the mall is owned by nobody, even though it is this gem for many Americans, it gets short shrift,’’ he said.

The mall didn’t just lose out on earmarks. In January, Congress deleted $200 million in stimulus funding for the mall. And last year, a bill that would have appropriated $100 million for mall repairs failed.

Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas said mall funding wasn’t an emergency.

“It’s entirely appropriate for Congress to fund repairs for the National Mall in the traditional process, but the American people are smart enough to know that it will do very little or absolutely nothing to provide economic stimulus,’’ he said.

House Republican whip Eric Cantor of Virginia similarly derided efforts to “help upkeep the grass on the lawns of Washington.’’

Yet Congress invests in sod and flower beds on its own grounds at the Capitol, which are kept carefully manicured, even as the mall - which runs 2 miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial - has languished.

Congress employs about 1,900 workers to maintain its buildings and 450 acres, while the Park Service has about 200 maintenance workers for the 650-acre mall and memorials.