Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
When President Barack Obama visited New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns over the summer, he and his family rode the park’s freight elevators into the caves because the passenger elevators were out of service.
They still are.
It is a stark reminder of the National Park Service’s nearly $12 billion backlog of maintenance needs that haven’t been met – either due to a lack of funding or a slow-moving contracting system – including more than $202 million in New Mexico.
Carlsbad Caverns alone estimates that its backlog tops $44 million, half of which is needed to repair two large passenger elevators and two smaller freight elevators built in the 1950s and 1930s, respectively, according to spokeswoman Valerie Gohlke.
The congressman who represents the area blames the park service bureaucracy.
Republican Rep. Steve Pearce has been “frustrated” by the park service’s efforts to get the passenger elevators fixed, according to Chief of Staff Todd Willens. Gohlke told the Journal a request for proposals has not yet been issued.
“In our meetings with the park service, it was never about money,” Willens said. “It was contracting. They have to get it through the park service bureaucracy. We find it amazingly frustrating that park service has allowed this to carry on.”
The two passenger elevators and one freight elevator broke down in the fall of 2015 and remained out of service for nearly six months, while the fourth was reserved for emergencies.
That meant tens of thousands of visitors to the park each month had to enter at the cave’s mouth and walk the dark, wet, winding trail down 750 feet into the Big Room of stalactites and stalagmites and exit back up the way they came.
The in-and-out hike alone takes two to three hours; the elevators deposit visitors to the bottom, 750 feet below the surface.
Gohlke estimates the outage depressed visits to the park by about 11 percent on average during those six months – although total park visitation is tracking slightly higher year over year through November to about 434,000 parkgoers from fewer than 430,000 through the same period in 2015.
After the park fixed the one broken-down freight elevator, rangers put both freight elevators back in service to take visitors up and down. They hold eight people each; the still out-of-service passenger elevators hold 16 people apiece.
The caverns are a huge draw to Carlsbad, a city of about 28,000 people on the Pecos River whose economy depends on potash mining, oil and gas extraction and an underground nuclear waste dump. That, and tourism.
“We are very fortunate here in Carlsbad to have a diversified economy,” said Robert Defer, chief executive of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce. “Tourism plays a large part. (The caverns) draw people from all over the world. They eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, fill up their cars.”
People who visited the caverns during the winter and spring complained about the elevators on TripAdvisor.com.
A visitor from California traveling with seniors and someone with a disability wrote “very disappointed.” A woman from New York with a boyfriend with a “bad knee” said the elevator outage “curtailed his exploration to a very short distance.” A visitor from Georgia wrote, “It was quite a walk in and a real haul coming back up for me. I think that the elevators being broken are stopping a lot of people from going in.”
Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation say they are working on it.
Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the appropriations subcommittee that sets the budget for the Interior Department and park service, said he has pushed to secure $4 million for the elevator repairs.
“The elevator outage has caused problems for visitors, and it’s understandable that small business owners and others in the community are concerned that the elevator outage will keep people from visiting Carlsbad,” he said in an emailed statement.
Gohlke said the passenger elevator repairs could take until 2018 to complete. The freight elevator repairs will wait until after the passenger elevators are back in service and could take until 2020, she said.
Although Obama did not make public remarks during his June visit to the caverns, the White House used his national parks tour to celebrate the system’s centennial this year and bring attention to the backlog of maintenance needed to keep up the parks’ antiquated infrastructure.