New York state's 213 parks and historic sites experienced another banner year this year, hosting more than 43.7 million visitors by Labor Day, an increase of nearly 6 percent over last year.
Whether it was due to rising gas prices, a less-than-robust economy or, simply, relatively hospitable weather, more New Yorkers apparently vacationed closer to home this year, or took day trips to nearby parks in lieu of traveling vacations. Whatever motivated them, it's clear that they continue to value the parks -- as well as the state's continued investment in them.
A couple of years ago, the park system was in jeopardy when then-Gov. David Paterson temporarily shuttered about a quarter of them as part of an effort to close a $9 billion budget deficit. After considerable public outcry and legislative grandstanding, a compromise was reached: $11 million was found and the parks opened just in time for Memorial Day Weekend.
Since Andrew Cuomo took office, the parks budget has continued under fire -- shrunk by roughly 10 percent -- but this year, the Legislature approved an $89 million infrastructure improvement appropriation that the state parlayed into an additional $54 million in outside funding. Good move, because as any homeowner knows, and as a recently completed audit by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office confirmed, the longer repairs to deteriorating infrastructure are delayed, the more they cost.
DiNapoli's audit, completed before any of the $143 million had been spent, indicated that the parks aren't a disaster -- yet -- but there is a need for more than $1 billion in infrastructure improvements. In general, the parks are safe, but in several cases, for example, park employees have had to cordon off areas that weren't.
Much, if not all, of the infrastructure account has been spoken for, even if the work has yet to be done. Perhaps the comptroller's office should wait a year and return to the same parks that were visited this spring to ensure that the money was well spent.
In the meantime, advocacy group Parks & Trails New York 's idea of the state regularly setting money aside for infrastructure improvements makes a lot of sense. These are assets not unlike people's homes, and they need to be kept up to maintain their value. If they are, they'll easily return in local economic impact what the state spends on them.