DELAWARE WATER GAP, Pa. -- There's a remarkable new building in the federal park in Pennsylvania: a two-hole outhouse, without running water, that cost the National Park Service at least $333,000.
It's nestled amid evergreens, with a gabled slate roof, cottage-style porches, and a handsomely tapered cobblestone masonry foundation in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright. A medley of wildflowers hides any sign of new construction.
Inside each spacious restroom, a green horizontal stripe at baseboard level plays off the green of hemlocks visible through discreetly placed picture windows. The place smells as sweet as the woods.
More than a dozen Park Service designers, architects and engineers had a hand in it by the time the privy opened in May 1996. They took two years.
Park Service view
The product, while magnificent, is typically expensive for Park Service work. How typical? So typical Park Service officials don't consider this six-figure privy expensive.
"We could have built it cheaper, yes, but we wanted someone coming up the trail or off the road to encounter a nice restroom facility," says Roger Rector, the park superintendent who signed off on the new outhouse in 1995.
"Frankly, that's what we're paying for toilets," shrugs Dennis Galvin, deputy director of the National Park Service. They're meant to last 50 years or longer with little maintenance, he explains, and top-quality construction naturally costs more. Lots more.
The hemlock-matching paint designers specified, for example, is custom-mixed epoxy resin that costs $78 a gallon. Certified Joe Pye Weed seed called for in the wildflower design cost $720 a pound. The toilets are no mere holes in the ground; they're $13,000 state-of-the-art composting models custom built by Advanced Composting Systems of Whitefish, Mont.
Capstones that serve as porch railings are of quarried Indiana limestone. The clapboard siding is 1-inch cedar. And, while Pennsylvania slate has been good enough for Pennsylvania homes for centuries, it wasn't good enough for this outhouse. So slate was shipped in from Vermont.
If there's an earthquake, don't worry. This may be the only privy in Pennsylvania with 29-inch-thick foundation walls designed to withstand one. But don't show up in midwinter. The doors will be locked because composting toilets don't work in freezing temperatures. Don't ask for water either. There isn't any.
"It's beautiful, but I'm glad I always travel with Handi Wipes," remarked Ann Jones of Woodbridge, N.J., after a brief stop at the comfort station. "At first," she added, "I thought it was a visitor center."
In a two-hour time span on a sunny Saturday in September, Jones was one of 10 visitors to the facility, located at a trailhead in a lovely, remote ravine 300 yards from Raymondskill Falls in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Summer traffic is heavier, according to park personnel, but on weekdays in fall the 20-car parking lot often is empty.
Just how the outhouse in Pennsylvania came to be built - came, in fact, to rank 10th nationwide among the National Park Service's 1994 construction priorities - is the story of a government construction program that has had three big
problems: Politicians set most of the Park Service's construction priorities; Park Service architects designed their dreams; no one questioned costs.
That's not surprising. Lawmakers don't mind Washington's splurging in their districts. Park superintendents need lawmakers' favor. And Park Service designers and architects have no reason to curb costs. Quite the opposite. They work out of a centralized office, the Denver Service Center, that depends for its revenues, not on congressional appropriations, but on commissions that are a percentage of the cost of the projects they design.
'Cost doesn't bother them'
"They're a bunch of prima donnas who just want to win awards for design excellence," grouses Jack Wilburn, recently retired chief of maintenance at the Gulf Islands National Seashore on the Florida and Mississippi coast. "Cost doesn't bother them; they always want to do something monumental and unique." By way of cost comparison with the Raymondskill outhouse, Wilburn says he designed and built permanent comfort stations on environmentally sensitive islands for about $20,000.
At the Delaware Water Gap park, portable toilets in widespread use cost $500 a unit. The Park Service doesn't buy them, however; they're leased and serviced for $65 a month from Pocono Potties in Snydersville, Pa.
To build the Raymondskill outhouse, the Park Service spent money in three ways: planning and design, construction, and supervision of the contractor. For planning and design, the bill was $102,614. For supervision - by a Park Service engineer from Denver who lived on site in Pennsylvania for 10 months - the bill was $81,220.
The Park Service and the outhouse builder disagree over actual construction costs. The contractor, James Straka of Peckville, Pa., low bidder among six, says building the outhouse cost him $262,000. But the Park Service's Denver-based manager of the job, Michael Giller, estimates it cost "$150,000 to $200,000."
If Giller's right, the total was between $333,000 and $383,000. If the contractor is right, it cost more than $445,000. That doesn't include costs of the parking lot, new signs, an improved trail to the waterfall and other outlays.
You could say this is no big deal. National park construction is certifiably gorgeous; it's won more presidential design awards than any other federal agency. And it's not that much money in terms of the federal budget: The Park Service's $1.99 billion construction budget for the last 10 years is less than the price of a single B-2 bomber.
But one consequence of the Park Service's penchant for custom-designed outhouses - and gates, fences and even benches - is a backlog in maintenance and construction work that's grown in the 1990s from $2 billion to nearly $5 billion, according to Park Service testimony before Congress.
Some parks in the districts of powerful lawmakers are flush - Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area near Cleveland, for example, in the district of Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican - but hundreds of parks without allies in Congress are deteriorating badly.
Rep. Joseph McDade, the No. 2 Republican on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, is the patron of the Pennsylvania privy.
The Delaware Water Gap park lies within McDade's district, and he still insists on its high priority. The 1998 budget includes $4.1 million for trail improvements there.
McDade, shown photos of the outhouse by a reporter, initially thought it was a restored resort cottage.
"That's terrible," he said, once convinced it was an outhouse. "It's a Taj Mahal! Why the hell did they do that?"
Pub Date: 10/26/97