Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: A Review of the 2008 Proposal

Mead Avenue Bridge in Meadeville, Pennsylvania. Photo taken in August 2010. Bridge still standing despite being closed to traffic since 2008.


The votes have been counted. The decision has been made. We have our man for the job as President of the United States for the next four years- Barack Obama. While it is appropriate to congratulate him on his victory, which will keep him in office until January 2017, we do know (and perhaps he knows, too) that there is work to be done. A lot has been accomplished in the first four years in office, yet there is a long list of tasks that need to be completed. Among them has to do with historic bridge preservation.

When the president took office in January 2009, he was faced with numerous issues that came about. One was with high unemployment, the other with the problem with the infrastructure; especially in light of the I-35W Bridge disaster on 1 August, 2007. The Transportation Authorization Bill, passed in 2009 was supposed to provide funding to fix the ailing system, which includes building new roads and bridges and providing new jobs for those affected by the economic meltdown that occurred in the Fall 2008. But the question is: what about historic bridges and their role in the Act? A proposal on how to include funding for historic bridge preservation as part of the Act was presented by James Garvin, a historian at the New Hampshire Historical Society in December 2008, with the goal of securing more funding to encourage preservation and reuse of historic bridges, also with a purpose of generating jobs but in sections that deal with restoring bridges, such as welding, etc.

I asked Mr. Garvin if the proposal could be presented to light in this article so that we can review it and find out how far we have come with historic bridge preservation in the last four years and find out if there is a way to bring this matter up to the attention of the president in a different form. As the green light has been given, here is the 2008 version of the proposal.  If there is a way to convince the president that preserving America’s heritage is just as important as improving the infrastructure, let alone producing new jobs for the economy, what proposals would you bring to his desk at the Oval Office?  Read this and I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

Note: As you probably remembered, I conducted an interview with Mr. Garvin about the historic bridge preservation policies and its connection with the Presidential Elections. You can find the transcript here.  My opinion about this topic will come in the next article, however, some food for thought about the election results can be found in an article produced by the sister column The Flensburg Files, which you can click here.

The December 2008 Proposal to Barack Obama from James Garvin:

Summary:   Historic bridges are tangible and inspiring elements of American history.  Preservation of such bridges has been declared a national purpose by Congressional enactment of laws extending back through more than forty years.  Despite the will of Congress, the nation has lost at least 50% of these bridges in the past twenty years.  Few artifacts of American history have been erased so swiftly from our landscape.  The magnitude of this loss is becoming apparent to the American people, and a consensus favoring bridge preservation is developing.  Many of the tools needed to accomplish this preservation must be supplied by Congress, but the Executive Branch has an unparalleled opportunity, in fulfillment of its stated goal to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, to encourage these bridge preservation efforts and to inspire other initiatives to preserve the man-made elements of the American environment.  The preservation of our remaining historic bridges will realize a long deferred intent of Congress while providing a stimulus to the American economy, conserving materials and energy, and preserving the legacy of engineering and aesthetics embodied in these bridges.  Because bridge preservation has been so long deferred, countless projects are poised to begin as soon as funding is available.

Narrative:  Much of the history of the United States is written in our landscape.  Among the most evocative embodiments of that history are our historic bridges.  Bridges represent human thought given physical expression.  Whether rusting as ruins or carrying us safely over the greatest of obstacles, these structures stand among the proud inheritances of a society that became great not through wars and conquests, but by harnessing the power of water and steam and by conquering distance though railroads and highways.  The surviving historic bridges of the United States are a precious but endangered resource in our history of civil engineering, iron and steel manufacturing, transportation, and economics.  Many were among the first bridges to embody the full scope of the science of structural analysis as it was developed by American engineers after the mid-1800s.  They revolutionized transportation at a time when the nation’s roads were a national disgrace.  They transformed the American economy by providing safe passage over dangerous hazards and difficult terrain.

Congress first recognized the significance of America’s historic bridges in 1966 through passage of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Department of Transportation Act.  The latter allows the federal Secretary of Transportation to approve a transportation project that requires the “use” of a historic resource only if (1) there is no feasible and prudent alternative to such “use,” and (2) the project includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the historic resource resulting from such “use” (49  U.S.C. 303 §771.135 Section 4(f)).2  The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 similarly requires that every federally-funded or -permitted project avoid doing harm to National Register-eligible resources whenever possible.  If harm cannot be avoided, it must be minimized and/or mitigated.  The public must be invited to participate in the process of planning for preservation.

The directive in the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 to the Federal Highway Administration to work toward bridge preservation was strengthened in 1987 with the passage of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA). This act created a historic bridge program that codified a Congressional finding that it is in the national interest to encourage the rehabilitation, reuse, and preservation of bridges that are significant in American history, architecture, engineering, and culture (23 U.S.C. 144(o)).

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has likewise developed a policy on the rehabilitation of historic bridges for continued vehicular use when possible, noting that

historic bridges are important links in our past, serve as safe and vital transportation routes in the present, and can represent significant resources for the future. . . . Bridges are the single most visible icon of the civil engineer’s art.  By demonstrating interest in the rehabilitation and reuse of historic bridges, the civil engineering profession acknowledges concern with these resources and an awareness of the historic built environment.

Despite the intent of Congress, our legacy of bridges, and the intelligence and enterprise they embody, is at risk.  That risk can be measured with a degree of accuracy because most states began to inventory their National Register-eligible bridges during the 1980s under directives from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Using the baseline documentation provided by these state bridge surveys, a workshop on historic bridges, held in Washington, D. C., in December 2003, came to a dire conclusion:

Since 1991, federal legislation has inspired an important transformation within the transportation community, broadening its mission from the traditional task of providing a safe and efficient highway system to acknowledging that these activities play a critical role in preserving our nation’s natural and historical heritage. Despite this cultural shift, recent statistics suggest that half, if not more, of our Nation’s historic bridges have been lost in the last twenty years—two decades in which transportation and preservation consciousness was at a high level. This is an alarming and sobering statistic.

The will of Congress has been thwarted by a general inadequacy in the level of maintenance of historic bridges and by a pervasive preference among transportation officials for replacement rather than preservation.  State and regional highway agencies, intent on building anew instead of preserving, often perform insufficient maintenance to ensure the preservation of historic bridges.  When the resulting deterioration reaches a critical stage, agencies commonly ignore the Congressional mandate to engage in all possible planning to avoid harm to historic bridges.  Moving quickly, often with minimal public participation, to a decision that there is no “prudent” alternative to the removal of a bridge, these agencies frequently condemn historic bridges to oblivion.  Despite the laws and studies cited above, this pattern of behavior has been recognized among transportation agencies nationwide.  In some states, two-thirds of metal truss bridges have been lost since 1984.

Perceiving the gap between our theoretical commitment to bridge preservation and the catastrophic losses in the field, the Standing Committee on the Environment of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) commissioned the development of general guidelines for bridge rehabilitation and replacement, hoping that such protocols might be adopted across the nation. The resulting report, Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement (March 2007), points out that

there is no . . .  protocol that ensures a nationally consistent approach to determining when rehabilitation is the appropriate decision or when replacement is justified. State and local transportation agencies have developed a wide variety of approaches for managing historic bridges . . . but few of the processes are founded on written protocols or guidelines that ensure balanced decision-making that spells out to all stakeholders when rehabilitation is the prudent alternative.

Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement is a recent offering that so far is unsupported by any mandate or initiative from AASHTO.  As yet, it has had little impact on individual states and certainly has not yet had the anticipated effect of encouraging bridge preservation or standardizing the treatment and preservation of historic bridges across the nation.

Yet there is a national consciousness of the enormity of our loss of so significant a part of the American legacy.  Several statewide preservation organizations have declared historic bridges to be among their “most endangered” historic properties.  Individual bridges, and historic bridges in general, have been nominated to the “Eleven Most Endangered” listing of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The present moment offers an opportunity for action.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has recently offered its “Vision for the Obama Administration.” Included under Section 8, “Transportation,” are four recommendations affecting historic bridges.  They are:

Promote the reuse rather than the demolition of historic bridges by removing current obstacles to their repair or relocation

Include additional [enhanced] historic preservation-based language in the new 2009 Transportation Authorization Bill to encourage the adaptive reuse of the existing transportation infrastructure

Ensure that Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] are not weakened in the 2009 Transportation Authorization Bill

Continue to fund Transportation Enhancement [TE] grants, which have been instrumental in aiding the preservation of historic bridges

Preservation of historic bridges is in keeping with longstanding public policy.  It is ecologically beneficial, inasmuch as it reuses existing materials and greatly reduces the “carbon footprint” of a project in comparison with the demolition of existing structures and building anew.  It is economically beneficial, inasmuch as rehabilitation, while usually less costly than new construction, is labor intensive and thus generates the need for many skilled jobs.

Because existing incentives for bridge preservation have proven insufficient to stanch the loss of half of these structures over the past few decades, an earnest attempt to fulfill the long-expressed will of Congress will require more resources.  In fulfillment of the will of Congress, the United States must develop a national strategy for and commitment to the preservation of historic bridges.  The upcoming reauthorization of the federal Transportation Authorization Bill in 2009 offers an opportunity to reshape bridge preservation practices of the United States.  Among the steps that have been suggested to accomplish this goal, augmenting the vision of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are:

An FHWA mandate, with funding, to develop statewide bridge preservation programs

An FHWA mandate, with funding, to develop a national context for historic bridges

AASHTO backing for preservation and better maintenance for all bridges, with further studies like Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement (2007)

Congressional appropriation for the preservation of historic metal truss bridges, comparable to the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program, including funding for study, planning, development of a national database of National Register-eligible bridges, and identification of national “best practices” for bridge preservation

Enhancement of the provisions of Section 4(f) to allow 200% of the estimated cost of demolition (rather than 100%, as at present) to be applied toward the preservation of historic bridges that are bypassed, and to encourage the use of those bridges for alternate transportation uses such as hiking, bicycling, and off-highway recreational vehicles

Provision of dedicated Transportation Enhancement [TE] funding specifically for historic bridge preservation.

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