Sunday, September 15, 2019

Lamar Alexander has put his legacy at risk | Opinion

by Rod Williams, Guest columnist, The Tennessean, Published  Aug. 30, 2019 -

Alexander needs to bring the Restore Our Parks Act to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and pass this legislation once and for all.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has long been known as an advocate for Tennesseans. He’s represented our state as governor, president of the University of Tennessee and as the state’s senior senator for more than four decades. He’s a man born in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains who never forgot where he came from, and he has built a legacy of improving health care, education and our national parks across the nation. But all good things must come to an end. Early this year, Alexander announced he will retire at the end of 2020.

Yet if he leaves office without one final detail, there will be a gaping hole in his legacy.

Our national parks face a $12 billion backlog in deferred maintenance projects, including $162 million in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone. The backlog represents thousands of roads, bridges, bathrooms and facilities, and emergency response systems that are in dire need of repair. And with 318 million visitors in 2018, our national parks are only getting more wear and tear.

 Smokies improve local economy 

Alexander understands the importance of our national parks. Not only are they vast oxygen tanks for our environment, national parks improve the local economy around them. In 2017, visitors spent more than $154 million along the Natchez Trace Parkway, ending in Nashville. In Rutherford County, Stones River National Battlefield saw its fourth-highest visitor attendance in 2018. That same year, the Smokies drove $953 million in visitor spending to the East Tennessee and western North Carolina region. That spending supports local restaurants and hotels, tourist attractions, tour guides, fly-fishing companies, sports outfitters and other businesses that rely on the millions of people who go to the Smokies each year. Yet if we let our national parks fall apart, the unreliable bathroom facilities, closed roads and precarious trails will only drive away visitors and the money they spend. East Tennesseans understand the importance of getting rid of the backlog. Just look at Ian and Charity Rutter, who took the time to make the case for our national parks to U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett this past spring. As business owners in the Townsend community whose customer base includes a healthy number of tourists, they know the longer we wait, the harder it’ll be to restore our parks. 

Restore Our Parks Act introduced 

I know Alexander understands the importance of our national parks. He introduced the Restore Our Parks Act in 2018 to cut the backlog in half by creating a dedicated revenue stream that can help fix our parks. He’s talked about getting rid of the backlog during his visits to the Smokies, during congressional hearings and even on social media. Several members of Congress, including Tennessee Reps. Phil Roe, Chuck Fleischmann, Burchett, Steve Cohen and Jim Cooper, have cosponsored a companion bill in the House.  Yet restoring our parks does not seem to be a priority to Alexander. Maybe it’s a sign Alexander has been in Washington too long. Maybe he hasn’t spent enough time in the Smokies over the last few years. Maybe he’s forgotten the region he came from. Maybe if he were running for re-election, he’d have gotten this legislation passed already.

Yet I don’t want to believe that.

I know Alexander cares about our community, and he wants to ensure our national parks remain a vital part of it for generations to come. That’s why, with just over a year left in the Senate, Alexander needs to bring this legislation to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and pass the Restore Our Parks Act once and for all. Anything less is a $12 billion broken promise.

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