Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: An Author’s Perspective

Photo taken in August 2010

To start off this column, I would like to start with a quote in connection with the results of the Presidential Elections: “When you give someone a Herculean task, which takes a lot of time to complete, you do not remove him from these tasks when he is halfway finished. You allow him to finish the work so that he and the people can take pride in a job well done.”  The results of the Presidential Elections on Tuesday clearly shows how far President Obama has come in bringing the US and other countries affected by the 2008 meltdown and the Great Recession that followed. Despite the successes, there are still some tasks to be completed in the next four years, and despite Romney’s campaign to defame the President for not being fast enough on job growth, the majority of Americans feel safer with him finishing the job instead of allowing somebody else to dismantle the policies that had been helping Americans during the first four years in office.

This also implies with historic bridge preservation in the US and its connection with infrastructural woes the country has still been having since the I-35W Bridge disaster in 2007.  In 2009, the federal government appropriated $62 billion over the next four years to be spent on improving the infrastructure. Yet a tiny fraction of that money was spent on historic bridge preservation, thus jeopardizing the future of the remaining historic bridges that are on America’s streets. Sadly, given the situation involving the weak economy and the fiscal cliff which America is fast approaching, it is expected that infrastructure spending on the federal level will drop by up to 70% by 2016. According to the Urban Land Institute, over $2 trillion will be needed for upgrading the infrastructure by 2019.  A chart provided by Business Insider shows the collapse in the money spent for the infrastructure in general. This is not good, given the fact that 11% of the country’s bridges (69,223) are rated structurally deficient. Furthermore, the country is struggling to catch up even repairing a short-span crossing because of the lack of funds from the state and federal governments.

This is not good for historic bridge preservation as funding needed for even rehabilitating them for reuse as a pedestrian bridge has also decreased. To compound the situation, either the funding for that aspect was either ignored or lambasted- considered as the waste of money. Challenger Mitt Romney would have eliminated funding for historic bridge preservation as an example of government wasting, as he claimed during his campaign in New Hampshire in May 2012. How President Obama will handle this issue remains to be seen. As seen in the 2008 Proposal by James Garvin, historic bridges have been the target for progress and modernization as two thirds of the number have been lost since the 1980s and funding has focused more towards bridge replacement than bridge rehabilitation and/or preservation.  Still, despite the decrease in the number of lost bridges built prior to 1950, we are seeing more nationally famous historic bridges and those with ornamental decorations  as well as bridges that have the potential of being eligible for the National Register of Historic Places destroyed than at the time during the time between 1990 and 2008.  During Obama’s first four years in office, 721 bridges have been demolished, down from 883 in the last four years of the presidency of George W. Bush. During his eight years in office, as many as 2528 historic bridges met the wrecking ball.


But bridges, like the Lake Champlain, Foxburg, Upper Bluffton, Fort Keogh, Rock Island Inver Grove Heights and Carquinez at Sacramento became part of the history books instead of a real live monument for future generations to see. Some of them fell victim to natural disasters, others were demolished despite being out of the way of the new bridge and some because of stupid decisions made by government officials using liability as a weapon and drivers who are illiterate enough not to read the weight and height restrictions. In any case there seems to be a trend towards modernization even though a wider slab of concrete will last half as long as truss bridges and a third as long as stone arch bridges in order to reduce cost and liability issues- both of these definitions will need to be clarified before we can move on to the other issues at hand.

Despite the slaughter of historic bridges, the trend towards historic bridge preservation has been growing in the past 10 years, as new methods of bridge restoration and rehabilitation has fostered job growth in professions, such as welding and bridge design, and produced many engineering and restoration firms with the sole purpose of restoring historic buildings and bridges. We have seen a growth in historic bridges on former railroad lines preserved for bike trails, and we have at least a dozen parks devoted towards historic bridges, including the F.W. Kent Park in Tiffin, Iowa and the Historic Bridge Park near Kalmazoo, Michigan. The trend is increasing.  Awareness of the importance of historic bridge preservation through print and electronic media has also increased over the course of three years with more people taking interest in the topic, through reading up on the information, participating in public forums and even conferences devoted towards historic bridges, such as the Historic Bridge Conferences, which have been held every summer since 2009 and Webinars hosted by many companies in the private sector, like Mead and Hunt. As long as the interest is high and/or increasing, measures will be needed to support the movement and place historic bridges on par with the need to improve the infrastructure.

So what will happen in the next four years and how will Obama tackle the issue of infrastructure and with that historic bridge preservation? We know that the issues will be addressed per se, but not right away as more important issues will have to be covered, among them the fiscal cliff, where if cuts are not made by Washington and a budget is balanced, the cuts will automatically be in place come 1 January 2013, putting the US into another recession. This will be fatal for any funding that comes out of Washington for the two important subjects. Yet if the compromise is made (and given the will that is there between the Democrats and the Republicans, it seems very likely), the outlook for the US economy is good, with healthy 3% GDP growth expected in the coming years. This will mean more money coming in for handling these two issues. The question is how to allocate the funding in a way that the rate of demolition of historic bridges is stemmed to an absolute minimum, including finding ways to relocate them for recreational purposes and encouraging rehabilitation thanks to the techniques that have been carried out successfully and disseminated to the rest of the public so that others can use it as reference for their own restoration projects.

Some of the proposals provided by Garvin were accepted, but it is clear that funding inequality, misunderstanding and irrelevant policies are three key hindrances that have prevented more historic bridges from being restored. These issues will need to be resolved in order to for historic bridge preservation to be successful. This will include strengthening regulations to ensure that there is more protection for historic bridges that are either eligible for or are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  As we are seeing education possibilities increase in the areas of welding and other professions involving restoring places of interest, more funding for community colleges and other institutions of secondary information will needed in order to encourage people to embrace these fields, as the need for these workers is increasing.

If we in the bridge mafia are able to convince Obama that historic bridge preservation is important, we will need to make ourselves known to Congress, using a variety of techniques that are considered practical and under budget. A new proposal for funding is needed, combining all the information that was provided in the 2008 Proposal as well as suggestions presented by other members of the community. It must include stricter regulations, but also guidelines and incentives to saving historic bridges.  More awareness of preservation versus progress is needed among our politicians, agencies, even educators, using real live examples of how preservation can benefit everyone in terms of cost-cutting and preserving history. We need to strongly encourage the media to be involved in the work of preservation, using the best examples of successful preservation practices that have occurred over the past 10 years. And we need to encourage accountability for anything that may happen to the bridge because of man-made incidents. That means those who damage or destroy a historic bridge because of disregard to the restrictions should be held accountable. It also means using tools to help owners maintain their historic bridge for years to come. If the proposals we present to Congress are successful, it will be a huge win for the historic bridges, for they have been treated like stepchildren in the shadow of our nation’s infrastructure and all of its shortcomings that are as severe as the number of historic bridges, which have dwindled by two thirds since 1985.

President Obama took on a task which was as huge as Beowulf manhandling the monsters and demons that terrorized the Danish Kingdom, as depicted in an Old English story. Yet despite successes in the first four years, there are still many shortcomings that need to be addressed. We can only hope that he can spend some time with his wife and two daughters at a historic bridge park to see how important historic bridges are to America’s infrastructure and its history and take action to preserve the few that are still left standing. Only when he finishes the job (one of many) will be be honored for his work, similar to how Beowulf was honored for his deeds to the people.