Monday, April 28, 2008

Cuts for the National Arboretum

Longtime readers will know that the National Arboretum was one of my favorite birding spots when I lived in D.C. and that I visited very frequently. It has the highest number of posts of any birding site with its own label. Over the weekend, I read some sad news about it. The National Arboretum faces severe cuts in its already underfunded budget.

Next year's proposed budget for the federally funded institution has been cut by $2 million, targeted at the arboretum's public face. The amount is small in the scheme of things, but it would reduce funding by 60 percent for the arboretum's public programming and the care of its rich garden displays and pioneering plant collections.

This comes after almost a decade of funding erosion: The operating budget has shrunk 20 percent in five years. A master plan to fix crumbling infrastructure and forge a future has remained essentially unfunded for eight years. Even if next year's money is restored, the arboretum will continue to suffer from years of chronic underfunding and the absence of capital investment.

Members of the Friends of the National Arboretum, a largely volunteer support group, say the reductions would force closure on weekends, when 70 percent of the visitors come; curtail classes, tours and exhibits; close part of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, with its world-class display of miniature trees; and abandon important plant collections cultivated for decades.
I have trouble believing that the Arboretum would be closed on weekends; one or two weekdays seem more likely candidates for closure if it came to that. The fact that this is a topic of conversation, though, is disturbing. As the article mentions, many of the road surfaces and pathways could use better maintenance or resurfacing. Trails in the Asian Gardens are in particularly bad shape. This did not bother me, but it did prompt the staff to close several trails. Potentially it makes visits more uncomfortable for people who have difficulty walking.

Some of the Arboretum's supporters believe that the underfunded budget creates cosmetic problems that discourage potential visitors from coming.
"I don't know that many cities that have 450 acres of pristine land," said Eric Price, senior vice president of Abdo Development, which is building Arbor Place. "One of the reasons we wanted to build this neighborhood is to make that connection to the arboretum . . . D.C.'s Central Park, if you will."
Compared with other major botanical gardens, the National Arboretum has a smaller staff and less funding. It also draws fewer visitors, and FONA members say that if it were fully funded and polished, it would attract larger crowds. The U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of the Capitol, reopened in 2001 after major renovation, now attracts nearly a million visitors, up from 750,000.
There is something to that, since tourists are more likely to make a point of visiting something that looks inviting. But it is not the end of the story. One of the major differences between the Arboretum and both the U.S. Botanical Garden and Central Park is access. Central Park and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. Botanical Gardens are located in close proximity to multiple subway stations, as well as numerous bus routes. The National Arboretum, on the other hand, is served by exactly one bus route (the B2), ever since Metro cut another route (the x6) that connected the Arboretum directly to Union Station. Ease of access is more comparable to the New York Botanical Garden, which lies far from the city center, but even that is served by both subway stations and commuter rail. Even with cosmetic improvements, the Arboretum would likely still fall short of other major gardens' visitation rates without improvements to its accessibility.

Both the Arboretum's budget cuts and its inaccessibility fall into a more serious pattern. There is a disregard for infrastructure at all levels of government. (I use the term "infrastructure" broadly – for both physical infrastructure like transportation systems, and public institutions like research centers.) This manifests in some cases as a failure to maintain existing infrastructure, including recreation and research institutions like the National Arboretum. Governments consistently fall to the temptation of kicking the maintenance can down the road for a few more years, and we all suffer as a result.

It also includes as a reluctance to build new infrastructure or expand what already exists. In this case, D.C.'s Metro system could serve more people and expand economic growth outside the downtown if new lines were built. If this plan were implemented, for example, it would improve accessibility to the National Arboretum and other parts of NE Washington. However, this is unlikely to happen when even maintenance funding for existing services gets sabotaged in the U.S. Senate, and the system's three jurisdictions squabble over funding priorities.

It is understandable that governments might cut back in times of economic trouble, like we have now. The trend of cutting or shortchanging infrastructure, though, stretches back over several decades, through both good times and bad. This reluctance to fund public works and institutions needs to change, and soon. As we have seen from recent incidents, neglect of infrastructure creates unnecessary hazards and wastes resources. It also hampers our ability to respond to new challenges like climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require investment in new public works: e.g., cleaner power generation and more mass transit to reduce reliance on automobiles. Likewise, coping with rising sea level and other hazards will require careful planning and major changes to some existing infrastructure, especially around major coastal population centers. These things will not happen unless infrastructure funding becomes a priority.