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.

Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: An Interview with Patrick Sparks

Photo taken in August 2010

This is it. Today is the Presidential Elections and it is the time where we finally decide for ourselves who to vote for. The next president will have a lot on his plate as he has many issues to deal with, among them preservation of historic bridges and improving the infrastructure.  The last segment of the series on the US Presidential Elections deals with an interview with Patrick Sparks, who is engineer at KT Engineering Consultants, based in Texas. The company specializes in the restoration of historic buildings and bridges. Mr. Sparks has been active on the historic bridge scene for many years, which includes being member of the advisory board at Historic Bridge Foundation in Austin, Texas. The state has had a great track record regarding historic bridge preservation, which can be seen with the recent restoration of the Piano Bridge in Fayette County.  I had an opportunity to ask him a few questions about this topic, in hopes that he can shed some light from a civil engineer’s point of view. Here are his thoughts:

How would you rate the state of the infrastructure in the last four years in your homestate, in your opinion? (General as well as with regards to bridges and historic bridges)

The infrastructure here is generally good, but it is easy to see that we are not keeping up with bridge rehabilitation. Of course, the state DOT stopped most funding a few years ago, due both to the end of the highway bill cycle and also due to some mismanagement.

How has the I-35W Bridge disaster in Minneapolis influenced the way bridges are designed and maintained?

I’m not clear about the affect of I-35 bridge. It happened at a time when funding was dropping off nationally.

And with regards to historic bridge preservation?

Bridge preservation continues to be a difficult thing. Rehab vs replace… replace is still usually chosen even when the costs are substantially higher. We still see the same obstacles. However, withe AASHTO focus now on general bridge preservation, there may be a shift in perspective.

How do you think the US is handling the policies involving infrastructure and historic bridges?

Clearly there is not enough infrastructure funding, and almost no funding for structural maintenance of bridges. And the decision of rehab vs replace is always biased in favor of replace. These are policy issues.

Only 6% of the Stimulus Bill was for infrastructure, so I have to give the current administration the Congress at the time low marks. Given the massive amounts of spending for non-infrastructure things, we will have to see what happens. Since the Democrats had full control of Congress, and did not pass an infrastructure bill, I’m not sure they would pass one now, unless they lose the Presidency and have to rebuild their credibility. In short, they missed the opportunity.

In your opinion, which of the two candidates (Romney or Obama) is better fit to handle the problems mentioned above? Why?

In summary, my hope is that Romney would do a better job with infrastructure, as I think he sees it as a true investment.

Thank you for your time and help.


Three Bridges Gone, Two collapsed, One dead

Fort Keogh Bridge in Montana, now demolished. Photo courtesy of HABS-HAER

There is a proverb that was passed down to the author by a friend of mine from Minnesota during a bridgehunting tour a couple years ago: Taking care of a valuable thing in life can prolong its life.  Sadly, as far as bridges are concerned, this proverb cannot be taken lightly as neglect and carelessness can destroy a structure with one swift drop into the ravine. In some cases, lives are sacrificed and the value of the structure is lost forever.

Three historic bridge tragedies have come to light in the last month clearly shows the neglect people have taken to maintain or in cases of damage caused by natural disasters, fix the structure to use again. The mentality seems to be that a bridge is to be crossed and if it means exceeding the weight limit. If a bridge is unable to hold traffic, it goes but without considering alternative crossings as a way of saving money and leaving the structure alone for lighter vehicles to cross.  The trouble with these three bridges is that there was little to no media coverage, thus allowing grassroots writers and even bridge websites like this one to fill in the vacuum. Part of that has to do with the Presidential Elections in the USA, which many people are looking forward to it being over with after today. But the other part has to do with the fact that various mediums have focused on issues that are of marginal importance and not on those that matter the most. In the case of one of the bridges that collapsed, one person died of his injuries the next day.  It is hoped that after the Elections are finished, that society and the media can focus on the real issues that matter the most. In this case, ways to preserve and maintain historic bridges for people to use in the future, while at the same time, make them safe for crossing- or if it is not safe, provide alternatives so that drivers can cross to get from point A to point B.

Here are the obituaries of the three bridges:

Fort Keogh Bridge near Miles City, Montana:

Built in 1902 by the Hewett Bridge Company, this two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge was perhaps the most ornamental of the bridges along the Yellowstone River, which flows into the Missouri River. Sadly though, flooding in 2011 sealed the bridge’s fate as one of the approach spans collapsed and one of the main spans leaned over. Despite pleas from the pontists and preservationists to salvage the bridge for reuse, plans went ahead to demolish the bridge in its entirety. While it was planned in the fall of 2012, it took place with next to no notice this past spring. The bad news was given to the author this past weekend by the state historical society. This tragedy will definitely end up on one pontist’s Wall of Shame because of its discreteness of the whole process, combined with lack of information and will to at least communicate regarding alternatives to demolition. It is questioned whether this act violated the preservation laws (especially Section 106), but no word on that aspect has been given.

Side view of the collapsed structure. Photo courtesy of Sherman Cahal

Old KY Hwy. 1657 Bridge near Falmouth, Kentucky:

Located over the South Branch of Grassy Creek, this bridge is typical of the standardized riveted Pratt through truss bridges that were built in the late 1910s and early 1920s. It was bypassed by a new bridge over a decade ago and became private property. Sadly, the bridge collapsed on 28 October in the evening when Craig Ruber, who owned a landscape store and was part of the Grant County Farm Board, tried crossing the bridge while hauling hay. The weight was too much for the bridge and the truss structure dropped into the river. He died of injuries sustained in the 20-foot fall. Sherman Cahal, who runs a blog bearing the name Bridges and Tunnels, visited the bridge before and after the collapse and provided some details of the structure, which you can click on here.

CGW Bridge and its collapsed span. Photo courtesy of Andy Winegar
The bridge taken at the same site last summer. Courtesy of the author.

Chicago and Great Western Railroad Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa:

The City of Des Moines has a wide array of unique bridges, both in modern terms as well as in historical terms. The CGW Bridge, built between 1893 and 1901 over the Des Moines River, is one of those structures. The bridge features four Pratt through truss spans built on a skew of approximately 20°. When it was abandoned and later bought by the city in 2002, it was hoped that the bridge would become a valued asset for the bike trail network serving the city of 230,000 inhabitants. After the collapse of one of the main spans a week ago, the future of the bridge is anything but certain. While fire caused by arson last year may have contributed to the weakening of the bridge, the main culprit was a crumbling pier supporting the third and fourth spans (going east to west). While it did not receive much attention by the media, this mishap is not unfamiliar, for another Des Moines River Crossing, the Horn’s Ferry Bridge in Marion County, suffered a similar fate 20 years ago. It is unclear what will happen to the CGW Bridge except the options are on the table: replacement span through a girder type structure, conversion into a pier like it happened at Horn’s Ferry, or complete demolition and removal. Given the work being done at the site, it appears that the third option may be exercised. But we will not know until we have clearer details by the city and the contractors involved.

Close-up of the cracked piers. Photo courtesy of John Marvig
Work being done at the bridge site. Photo courtesy of Andy Winegar

2012 Othmar H. Ammann Awards: Now taking entries

Tunnel view of the Chain of Rocks Bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri (USA) Photo taken in August 2011

With all the excitement we have seen with historic bridges this year, including those that  were saved thanks to efforts from the community, those photographed by amateurs and profis because of a vantage point they could not resist, but on the flip side, those that were destroyed by natural force or man-made carelessness, we have come to the month of November, which is National Historic Bridge Month. And with that, for the second year in a row, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is hosting the 2012 Othman H. Ammann Awards. Between now and the 30th of November, the author will be collecting nominations of bridges and the people who have worked hard at saving them, based on the following categories:

The Lifetime Legacy Award- to a person or group of people who devoted their lives towards saving historic bridges and bringing them to the attention of the public

The Best Snapshot Award- to the person who has provided bridgehunters and preservationists with an awesome pic of a historic bridge in the United States, Europe and elsewhere


The Best Kept Secret Award- to a bridge or a cluster of bridges in a region in the US and elsewhere, where little attention has been paid to by the media, but in the eyes of the bridge lover, deserves to be recognized on the international scale.

We we will also add two new categories for the Ammann Awards, which are the following:

The Bridge of the Year Award: This is perhaps the grandest of all awards, as nominations are being accepted for this prize. To qualify, the bridge must represent a pristine example of a historic bridge that was preserved and marketed to the public. This also includes a bridge that was damaged by unknown factors but was salvaged and rebuilt to accomodate people. As a general rule for this nomination, uniqueness in saving and preserving the bridge is key.

The Mystery Bridge Award: The Mystery Bridge Award will be given out to a bridge that was discovered but has little to no information on it (except that it deserves attention from the readers). The Award is not only for bridges profiled on the Chronicles page but also those that have not been profiled yet, but deserve the recognition. Note: For the bridge that has not been profiled but nominated for this award, it will be profiled on the Chronicles page prior to the announcement of the winner.

If you have some historic bridges and/or people that deserve the 2012 Ammann Awards for any of the categories, please send your entries via e-mail to Jason D. Smith at the Chronicles at or by no later than 30 November, 2012 at 12:00 am Central Standard Time. For international entries, you have until 1 December, 2012 at 12:00pm Central European (Berlin) Time to submit your entries. Please make sure that the photos you send for any of the awards, including the Best Snapshot Award are in JPEG format to make posting them easier.

The author will also take entries for the Best Bridge Pics, for the categories of Best Example of Historic Bridge Reuse, Worst Example of Historic Bridge Reuse, Best Find of a Historic Bridge, Biggest Bonehead Story and the Worst Example to Destroy a Historic Bridge. If you know of any bridge in the US or Europe that deserves this type of recognition, please submit your entries (including photos if you have them) to Jason D. Smith at the Chronicles by no later than 1 December at 12:00pm Central European Time.

Once the entries are collected, a voting process will take place at the beginning of December with the winners being announced on 23 December, 2012. To view the winners of the 2011 Ammann Award please click on the link below. More information on the Ammann Awards are available on the page bar of the Chronicles.  Bridges that won last year’s awards are not eligible to enter again.

2011 Ammann Award Winners

The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is an online column that focuses on the success of historic bridge preservation to encourage people to visit them and learn about these unique structures and its connection with history. Wishing you the best of luck in finding the best bridge that deserves the recognition it needs.