The Blue Ridge Parkway, seen from Humpback Rocks in Virginia, June 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Even in car-clogged Northern Virginia, nothing stops traffic like a 10-foot-deep sinkhole.

And that’s exactly what happened — twice — last spring on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, one of Virginia’s most visible national parks, after a culvert pipe beneath the road failed. 

Today, the parkway, whose terminus lies at George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon estate, is traversed by some 33 million vehicles every year, commuters and tourists alike. But significant chunks of it are nearing the end of their lifespan, suffering from years of deferred maintenance. 

The fixes the parkway needs aren’t minor: according to National Park Service figures, necessary maintenance that has been deferred over the years is now approaching $300 million.

Nor is the George Washington Memorial Parkway an anomaly in the commonwealth. In the Hampton Roads region, the Colonial National Historic Park — which includes historic Jamestown, Yorktown and the Colonial Parkway — has more than $430 million in deferred maintenance. The Blue Ridge Parkway’s backlog is over $210 million. Shenandoah National Park’s is almost $89 million.

National park maintenance backlogs in Virginia, FY 2018. (National Park Service)

The needs, said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D) in a call Thursday morning, run the gamut, ranging from “road-type repairs to visitors centers to trails.”

Overall, Virginia’s national parks account for more than $1.1 billion of the country’s $12 billion maintenance backlog. The commonwealth’s costs are the third largest in the nation. Only California’s ($1.9 billion) and the District of Columbia’s ($1.3 billion) are greater. 

“We have literally loved our parks almost to death,” said Landon Howard, president of the Roanoke-based organization Virginia’s Blue Ridge, on a Thursday morning press call.

But now, after years of neglect, change may be in sight. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act, a sweeping piece of bipartisan legislation that was co-sponsored by 60 senators including Warner. Besides guaranteeing full funding for the $900 million Land and Water Conservation Fund each year, the legislation will put $9.5 billion over the next five years toward backlogged public lands maintenance, with $6.5 billion going to national parks.

The funding will come from oil and gas royalties paid by companies to the federal government. 

On Thursday, a jubilant Warner described the law — which is expected to clear the House of Representatives — as “the most important piece of conservation or environmental legislation in a generation” and “one of the most bipartisan things that the Senate at least has done in a long, long time.”

The senator also touted the legislation as a “jobs bill,” pointing to a recent National Park Service study that found that national parks contributed $1.2 billion to Virginia’s economy in 2019 and a June 2019 study by the federal agency that estimated that the work required to eliminate the maintenance backlog could generate more than 10,000 jobs in the commonwealth. 

Most of those jobs, said Warner, would likely be in construction.