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America’s infrastructure splurge should begin with Pullman and other Midwest national parks

Why not launch President Biden’s infrastructure initiative where it is needed most — in America’s industrial heartland?

The clock tower at Pullman National Monument, on Chicago’s South Side.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

President Joe Biden says he wants to invest an extra $579 billion in highways, bridges, railroads and alternative energy as part of his massive infrastructure renewal proposal.

Here’s where the president should start: In the cities of America’s heartland, such as Chicago, and their neighboring national parks. This is a region that has lagged behind when it comes to jobs creation and income growth. It could use the economic surge.

For northern industrial cities such as Chicago, Scranton and Gary that are gateways to national parks, an effective way to leverage new federal infrastructure funding would be to link the needs of those towns with the deferred maintenance projects of the nearby parks.

Our national parks have a $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog. Dangerous roads and crumbling bridges are common in virtually all 423 national park sites, according to a recent National Park Service report. In response, Congress stepped up last year to restore the parks through The Great American Outdoors Act. So Biden already has money available to implement a major infrastructure initiative — one for national parks.

Working hand in hand with this effort, the US. Department of Transportation could aim initial infrastructure upgrades at communities that are gateways to national parks. By melding renewal programs for the parks with infrastructure upgrades for the communities that adjoin the parks, NPS and DOT could get more bang for the buck.

In Chicago, work to refurbish the Pullman National Monument requires more than $13 million in upgrades to buildings and grounds.

The first planned industrial community in the United States, Pullman was the site of two historic labor events that helped shape the union labor movement in the nation. Violent strikes over pay erupted in 1894, pitting the Pullman company, which manufactured luxury railroad sleeping cars, against the American Railway Union.

Decades later, in 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters won the first major labor agreement in the United States that benefited African Americans. In an article written for an NPS publication, Alesha Cerny called this agreement “one of the most important markers since Reconstruction toward African American independence from racist paternalism.”

While the National Park Service pursues an eco-friendly restoration of historic Pullman, perhaps the Department of Transportation could fund a series of electric vehicle (EV) recharging stations along Interstates 94 and 57 and other roadways leading to Pullman. This action would attract EV drivers, who are always searching for refueling stations. Tourism on Chicago’s South Side, including at the Pullman National Monument, would get a boost, while air quality would be improved at the Pullman site and throughout the national park gateway community of greater Chicago.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Indiana Dunes National Park requires $27.8 million to repair infrastructure. Restoration of NPS resources in the park might be complemented by federal transportation aid for the Bike and Pedestrian Plan Project in Gary, Indiana. Improvements could reduce bicycle accidents and provide a non-polluting way around the city.

Looking forward, the DOT could encourage a bike trail extension from Gary to the Indiana Dunes National Park. This would give urban residents access to the park’s 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg, an avid proponent of bike use and safety, might consider the Gary-to-National Park bike trail extension as a model for the rest of the country.

Why not launch President Biden’s infrastructure initiative where it is needed most — in America’s industrial heartland? It could bring national parks and their gateway cities together to jump-start crucial environmental, historical and transportation infrastructure renewal. It would also promote necessary investment in clean-energy modes of transportation such as rail, bicycle and electric vehicles.

A number of national parks might finally reach their full potential while disadvantaged communities in parks’ gateway cities flex their rebuild muscles. In a post-COVID world, this plan’s winning formula could help our nation become vibrant and secure once again.

A volunteer for national parks, John Plonski is a former city manager and executive for Pennsylvania’s State Parks and Forests.

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