In School in Germany: The Pocket Guide to Industrial History

Rendsburg High Bridge in Rendsburg, Germany Photo taken by the author in April 2011

 

Joint article and forum with sister column the Flensburg Files in conjunction with the series on In School in Germany. Except this example focuses on Infrastructure, using Historic Bridges as an Example.

A while back, shortly before my debut teaching about industrialization in the US and Germany between 1870 and 1914, I had put out a question as to how to approach the topic of infrastructure in that era, in particular when it comes to bridge building, and how it ties in with the usage and proliferation of the material of steel- a replacement to iron. For more information on this inquiry, please click here for details.

Here is the follow-up on this particular topic, which has me thinking about a creative way of getting students acquainted with infrastructure and industrialization:

During the block-session, which consists of two 45-minute sessions into a 90-minute one, students had an opportunity to write down their notes in a small pocket brochure, compiled on my part. This is what the pocket brochure looked like:

The notes to be taken by the students (consisting of high school juniors) were in connection with a series of mini-presentations that they were supposed to give, based on the following topics that were given to them to prepare two weeks beforehand:

Iron and Steel

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

The Chicago School of Architecture

Railroads

Bridges

Canals

The Automobile

The Roads

Inventions (Electricity, the Telephone, etc.)

Each presentation was 3-5 minutes long, with questions to follow.  The exception to the topic was the one on bridges, presented by yours truly.  The topics were presented in a way that materials go first, for they played hand-to-hand in the development of other forms of infrastructure and transportation.

The results were astounding. Lots of information on American and European inventors making their marks, yet one would need a couple more sessions to digest all the information presented.  Some questions in connection with this topic you can find in the Files’ article here.

The problem with presenting infrastructure and industrialization is that the development of both Germany/Europe and the US was exponential, that it would be difficult to cover everything. It even applies for bridges, as dozens of American and European bridge builders were responsible for hundreds of bridge designs and bridge examples that existed during that time (and still do today). Plus some of the bridge builders of that time period had their own colorful history that is worth mentioning; especially when it comes to those immigrating to the US from what is today Germany, Poland, Austria, France and Hungary (where they were once known as The French Kingdom, Prussia and later the German Empire, Austro-Hungarian (or Habsburg Empire) and the Russian Empire (as Poland became part of the empire in 1795 as part of a partition agreement with Prussia)).

The end result was a compromise presented by the history teacher upon evaluating the session: a pocket guide to certain aspects of infrastructure with a focus on a country and some key examples worth noting. If divided up into the aforementioned topics, it would make the most sense, as for each aspect, one can present some key facts that are relevant to the topic of infrastructure and industrialization, along with some fun exercises . Plus if the booklet is 10-15 pages per topic, it will be sufficient enough for pupils to get a whiff of the aspects of history that have been left at the wayside, while the remaining artefacts become a distant memory,  but at the same time, be encouraged to preserve what is left of history or take measures that matter to them. After all, when we talk about environment and protection, our heritage technically belongs to this fragile umbrella.

For the pontists and historians alike, some ideas of how to construct such a booklet pertaining to bridges is a tricky one, for especially in the United States, the topics and the number of bridge builder and bridge examples have to be narrowed down to only a handful of examples. So if we look at the proposal for such a booklet for Germany, we have the following:

Part I: German emigrants- focusing on John Roebling, Albert Fink, Gustav Lindenthal, Wendell Bollmann, Joseph Strauss und Lawrence H. Johnson

Part II: German bridge engineers (who stayed in Germany)- Friedrich Voss, Hermann Matthäus, Gustav Eifel, Hermann Gerber, Franz Meyer

Part III: Areas of bridge building- Cities (Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Halle (Saale), Leipzig, etc.- choosing three; Canals (Baltic-North Sea, Dortmund-Ems, Elbe-Lübeck) and a pair of River Examples

Part IV: Notable Works- using two bridge examples, like the Rendsburg High Bridge, for example, and presenting some interesting facts about them.

If you were asked to construct a booklet similar to the one mentioned here, for the US, how would you structure it? What contents would you put in there and what examples would you include?  You can place your comments here, on the facebook pages under the Flensburg Files and/or Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, or in the LinkedIn page under The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles.  Do not be surprised if you have a question coming from either the author or one of the readers pertaining to a booklet on a similar topic but pertaining to Canada or another country.

Those wishing for a copy of the booklet I made for my history class or a power point presentation on bridges in Germany and the US can contact Jason Smith at the Chronicles at flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. Please be aware that both are in German and that if you want the English version, you will have to wait a couple weeks.

And now to the Files’ Guessing Quiz pertaining to Industrial History, which you can click on here.

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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.

(Source: Bridgehunter.com) 

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.

 

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.

 

Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: An Interview with James Garvin

Meadow Bridge in Shelburne. A bridge where two of its spans were moved onto shore. Its future is in doubt. Photo taken by Craig Hanchey

This article is the second part of the series on the dire state of New Hampshire’s historic bridges and its connection with historic bridge preservation policies and the upcoming Presidential election in November. While the first part focused on the dire state of historic bridge preservation policies based on the interview with Rep. Steve Lindsey (you can click here for more details), this part focuses on the problem with historic bridge preservation on an even wider scale, based on an interview with historian James Garvin, who has worked with historic bridge preservation in the state for over 25 years. While the answers to some of the questions are lengthy, they do present some light on some of the policies that exist and for the most part, should be improved. Mr. Garvin presented a proposal to President Obama in 2008 to integrate historic preservation into the grand scheme to faster economic growth despite the recession the country was in as a result of the Great Economic Meltdown. Was this issue addressed by President Obama? Or did he brush it past and allowed for challenger Mitt Romney, who resides in neighboring Massachusetts, to bring this issue to the public’s attention. We’ll find out as Mr. Garvin tackles the issues of policies and the shortcomings that still exist both in his state as well as the rest of the country. Here is the interview in full length:

How long have you been working with the topic of historic bridges and preservation? What aspects did your work focus on?

I began to work on the preservation of historic bridges some twenty years ago, shortly after joining the staff of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources (the State Historic Preservation Office).  My employment as state architectural historian entailed regular meetings with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) on many bridge and highway projects, with particular emphasis on projects involving historic bridges.  While New Hampshire has a strong commitment to the preservation of wooden covered bridges, the commitment toward preservation of metal truss and concrete bridges was almost nonexistent when I started to work for the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

The weak impetus toward preservation of these more modern bridge types was strengthened in 1987, the year I began to work for the SHPO, with the passage of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA). This act created a national 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 passage of STURAA required (and funded) a statewide survey of historic bridges in New Hampshire, providing the state with the first inventory of bridges that should be given special consideration for preservation.  Despite the existence of that inventory, New Hampshire still has not made an earnest commitment to the preservation of historic bridges other than covered bridges, and about 50% of the metal truss bridges that were extant in 1987 have since been lost.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (one being best), how would you rate historic bridge preservation in New Hampshire in comparison  to the state’s infrastructure as a whole?

I would rate New Hampshire’s efforts at preservation of historic bridges at 8 on a scale of 10 (one being best).  As one example, New Hampshire has lost about half of its metal truss bridges during the past 25 years.  As mitigation for demolishing historic bridges, NHDOT several years ago made a theoretical commitment to drafting a bridge preservation plan and creating areas for the temporary storage of replaced metal bridges for re-use elsewhere, but there is little if any indication of actual progress on these fronts, at least in a way that guarantees the preservation of key bridges.

A few New Hampshire bridges have been selected for preservation as mitigation for the removal of others of their kind, but NHDOT has several times reneged on its commitment to preserve even these few.  One such bridge, the open-spandrel concrete arch Vilas Bridge (1930) over the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont, was guaranteed perpetual preservation when a similar bridge was demolished, yet Vilas Bridge is now closed to traffic with a severely deteriorating deck, and NHDOT has not included its rehabilitation in the state’s next ten-year highway work plan.  As a result, the Hampshire Preservation Alliance, a statewide non-profit preservation advocacy organization, designated Vilas Bridge as one of New Hampshire’s most endangered historic structures in October 2012.

Another theoretically preserved bridge, a double-intersection Warren pony truss of 1925 in Dover, was replaced but safely set aside on new piers for perpetual preservation in 1986.  It was not maintained or interpreted as a historic engineering structure, but just placed next to the new bridge.  Because of its ensuing cosmetic deterioration and pressures from neighbors, the bridge has reportedly been removed from preserved status and offered for sale.  It will be demolished if no buyer appears.

One bridge of national significance, the state-owned 1897 pin-connected multi-span Pratt truss Meadow Bridge in Shelburne, N. H., won a Save America’s Treasures grant in 2005–only the second SAT grant ever made for a historic bridge.  Despite this, Meadow Bridge faces potential demolition.  This threat derives from a NHDOT policy that, if rehabilitated, the bridge must become the property and responsibility of the Town of Shelburne, a community of fewer than 400 people.  Because of this impasse, the Save America’s Treasures grant has lapsed and been forfeited.  The bridge is deteriorating with no action plan for its rehabilitation and interpretation.

This poor record of preservation caused the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance to declare all surviving metal truss bridges, as a group, to be among the state’s most endangered historical resources in 2008.   Despite this designation, such bridges continue to be demolished.  Few if any have been permanently preserved since 2008.

Rumor has it that the number of HBs in the state are dropping rapidly because of policies that encourage replacement over rehabilitation.  Do you agree with this and what are your reason for your argument?

When New Hampshire carried out a federally mandated bridge inventory under STURAA in the 1980s, the state had 92 metal truss bridges, 79 of them in vehicular use. Today, New Hampshire has 63 metal truss highway bridges, a number of them bypassed, abandoned, or in ruinous condition.  The number of such bridges still in service has dwindled to 39—a loss of nearly 50% in two decades.  Some of the 92 bridges of twenty years ago have been bypassed rather than demolished, but their preservation is not guaranteed.  Most of those 92 bridges that are no longer in service have been destroyed.

Federal laws encourage the preservation and continued use of historic bridges, but these laws have proven to be only marginally effective as a preservation tool. The loss of historic bridges is a national phenomenon as well as a New Hampshire crisis.  Despite the pervasive recognition of the significance of these structures, a workshop on historic bridges held in Washington, D. C., in December 2003, came to a dire conclusion:

. . . 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. (Author’s note: this comment was stated by Eric DeLony, historian emeritus of the Historic American Builders Society and the father of historic bridge preservation.)

This “alarming and sobering” nation-wide loss of fifty percent of historic bridges over twenty years is mirrored almost exactly by New Hampshire’s statistics.

Many statements by Congress and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) assert that historic bridges are significant elements of our national heritage and should be preserved.  Yet there is a widespread perception among bridge preservationists that highway engineers, who often lack historical perspective and sympathy for the work of their predecessors, have discovered an effective antidote to the expressed will of Congress.  By  delaying maintenance on such bridges long enough, these structure can often be found, after a decade or so of neglect, to be “beyond rehabilitation,” with “no alternative” but replacement.

Such a scenario unfolded with Memorial Bridge between Portsmouth, N. H. (1923), a vertical lift bridge designed by the eminent engineer J. A. L. Waddell as  the first major bridge of its kind in the eastern United States.  At its dedication, Memorial Bridge had the longest lift span in the country (297 feet), making it the direct prototype for later vertical lift bridges with clear spans of over 300 feet.  Plans for the rehabilitation of this bridge were approved by the New Hampshire and Maine DOTs, the two states’ SHPOs, and the Federal  Highway Administration in 2006.  When rehabilitation bids came in higher than predicted by the DOTs, the bridge was patched and kept in service for a few more years.  Because of its vulnerability, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared Memorial Bridge to be one of the “Eleven Most Endangered” historic properties in the United States in 2009.

Memorial Bridge, a structure of national significance, was ultimately found to be “beyond rehabilitation” and demolished in 2012.  A replacement is now being designed.

Chesterfield- Battlebro Bridge over the Connecticut River. The 1937 steel through arch bridge (right) was replaced by the 2003 version (left) but was left in place. It is one of many success stories of bridges along the border with Vermont. Photo taken by Craig Hanchey

 
How about on the federal level: are you satisfied with the policies pertaining to bridges and historic bridge preservation?  What improvements do you think should be made here?

Commitments to bridge preservation at the federal level are theoretically strong, yet have proven to be ineffectual.

Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 allows the federal Secretary of Transportation to approve a transportation project that requires the “use” of a historic resource only if (1) there if 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 must 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.3

Perceiving the gap between these theoretical commitments and the catastrophic losses in the field, the Standing Committee on the Environment of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) entered into an agreement with the National Cooperative Highway Research Program of the Transportation Research Board to produce 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), states that:

while the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended) and Section 4(f) of the US Department of Transportation Act of 1966 specify nationally applicable processes for considering preservation or replacement of historic bridges (defined as those that are listed in or have been determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places), there is no corresponding 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. (Source: Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement, published by Patrick Harshberger, et. al. in 2007)

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

Instead, state and regional highway agencies, intent on building anew instead of preserving, often fail to perform adequate 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 consistently 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. (These comments were made by DeLony and Terry Klein in a literary piece, Historic Bridges: A Heritage at Risk, published in 2004)

All this regulation is threatened by lack of funding for continued maintenance of such bridges.  Lack of funding for preservation leads to a culture of total replacement or removal, for which funding usually has been available.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation offered its “Vision for the Obama Administration” in 2008.  Because of the weaknesses of federal policy in guaranteeing effective bridge preservation, National Trust included four recommendations affecting historic bridges:

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.

In a similar vein, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources drafted a position paper to be conveyed to the Obama transition team in 2008.  This paper attempted to promote bridge preservation as an aspect of stimulus for a deeply damaged economy.  A stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), was ultimately enacted, but it contained no special provisions for historic preservation of any kind.

The position paper of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources outlined the following recommendations for improving or strengthening federal bridge preservation initiatives:

A Federal Highway Administration (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.

Do you think President Obama has done a good job addressing the issue of infrastructure and the deficiencies involved?  If not, do you think Romney will do better if elected President?

As noted above, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources drafted a position paper to be conveyed to the Obama transition team in 2008.  Whether or not this paper was ever given careful study by that team or the Obama administration, none of its recommendations appear to have been implemented during the past four years, or even to have risen to the level of a national discussion.

Yet it must be said that the Transportation Authorization Bill, wherein most of these recommendations would be implemented, is the province of Congress, not the President.  The subject of bridge preservation is apparently regarded as of little importance by Congress; I know of no preservation leaders who presently serve in the House or Senate.  Given the apparent blindness of Congress to this issue, I do not see that progress in bridge preservation lies within the purview of a President, whether Obama or Romney.  Bridge preservation at the federal level is an issue to be debated in Congress.  A President could influence this issue through impassioned advocacy, but I cannot envision either Obama or Romney making such advocacy a priority in an economic climate in which any preservation effort is likely to be seen as elitist and branded as wasteful of funds that could be “better spent” on other national priorities.

Who do you think will win the election and why?

Political forecasting is outside of my fields of training or experience, but I do not expect the next president to make the preservation of historic bridges a high priority.  I have not heard either Obama or Romney mention historic preservation as an interest of theirs.

The author would like to thank Sheldon Perkins and Craig Hanchey for the use of their photos in the two-part series. These bridges represent clear examples of what improvements that need to be done in New Hampshire.

Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation Part II: New Hampshire’s Historic Bridges

Memorial Bridge at Portsmouth. A 1923 vertical lift through truss bridge that was demolished in February 2012. Photo taken by Craig Hanchey

 

This is the first of two parts dealing with the US Presidential Elections, Historic Bridge Preservation and in this case, New Hampshire.

One of the original 13 colonies of the United States, New Hampshire, the fifth smallest state with its mountainous features and historic small towns, is one of many states in the Union that has multiple covered bridges and prides itself with having one of the highest density of these bridge types in the country, with over 45 located in the state. It also has one of the highest density of stone and concrete arch bridges, with over 30 of them located in the state. And lastly up to now, it has a fair number of pre-1950s truss bridges. Sadly though, it appears that the state is following suit of many in the country in trying to eradicate “structurally deficient” bridges, making way for modern structures, whose aesthetic appeal is not to the liking of many residents growing up with the structures. The best example is the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, a vertical lift bridge with one of the most ornamental portal bracings a person can see in New England. The lift bridge and all of the Parker through truss spans, built as a memorial for the war veterans, was torn down to make way for another vertical bridge, trying to copy the feature of its predecessor, but to many residents, the design is too modern and too bland. Other bridges have been targeted for either replacement or removal, like the Depot Street Bridge in Boscawen or the Lilac Bridge in Hooksett.  According to James Garvin, a historian who has worked with the subject of historic bridges in the state for over 25 years, two thirds of the historic bridges in the state have been replaced since 1984, half of the metal truss bridges have been lost since 1987 with the trend that the state seems to be more concerned with protecting the covered bridges than other bridge types.  While some of these bridges have been preserved for pedestrian use, more is needed to preserve what is left of the state’s bridges. Yet, according to two people, it seems to be not happening.

Depot Street Bridge in Boscawen. Photo taken by Sheldon Perkins, used with permission

The Chronicles invited two people who are associated with the state’s historic bridges to put their two cents worth into the subject in hopes that the issue of decreasing historic bridges in the state is brought to the attention of the readers: Representative Steve Lindsey and historian James Garvin, the latter will be featured in part II which follows.  Mr. Lindsey has been advocating for the preserving New Hampshire’s remaining historic bridges- the other, more neglected bridge types- for many years and recorded his disdain towards the state’s preservation policies to a point where he even recommended tourists to visit neighboring Vermont if they want to visit historic bridges on one of the bridge websites. Unlike the majority of politicians who either are indifferent towards historic bridge preservation or would rather favor modern but tasteless structures to support an increasing amount of traffic, Mr. Lindsey is one of a few who are bucking the trend and is looking for answers to stop the progress, both on the state level but also to a certain degree, on the national level. Here is the interview with the state representative:

1. How would you rate the infrastructure in your state of New Hampshire in comparison to the rest of the US?  And with regard to bridges in general?

Poor and poor.  Lacking a broad-based tax and a hesitancy to tax overall, New Hampshire has a girdled revenue stream problem.  We have an aging roads system that was always behind the rest of the nation in modernity. The exception being the politically power Merrimack River Valley which receives a disproportionate share of state and federal infrastructure moneys.  The same goes for our bridges  We have a large percentage of Red List bridges.

2. How would you rate the policies regarding historic bridge preservation in your state in general (1-10 scale; 1 being best)? What factors contributed to the way historic bridges are being treated as they are?

I would rate New Hampshire a “8” or “9”.  While we do not seem to overtly target the replacement of historic bridges as appears to me to be the case with PennDot, New Hampshire has no love of historic metal truss or other bridges.  Some appreciation of covered bridges extant is supported weakly by the state government, but even here most of our covered bridges are supported by towns.

This year alone, we’ve lost two historic steel trusses bridges. At this rate, all will be gone in 30 years and the struggle to save them over.  This would almost be a relief.

It is so bad I am considering writing a Swiftian essay “Let’s Get it Over” advocating the state systematically demolish all its historic truss bridges except the Connecticut River spans, and put up road signs pointing tourists in the direction of Vermont should they want to see some of our nation’s civil engineering heritage.

Early in my bridge preservation years (1990s), I went to the NHDOT headquarters in Concord to garner some information.  The commissioner whom I did not know came down to talk to me without identifying himself.  In a sense spying.  Such was the condescending attitude.

I also submitted an essay to the NHDOT newsletter and they wouldn’t run it. I was told later by the PR man, a fine fellow, that he had never seen anything before censored in the newsletter and was himself taken aback and sadden by this.

The public just doesn’t support the preservation of our civil engineering heritage like they do in Indiana and Ohio.  There is nothing to work with.  The state’s newspaper, the Union Leader, did give us some positive coverage, but most New Hampshirites are preoccupied with national and state politics as we have the nation’s first in the nation primary.

Newport, NH even celebrated the razing of a rare iron arch truss in the late 70s by erected a plaque next to the I-beam bridge honoring the selectman for standing up to Concord.

Which leads to to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” incident with candidate Romney.  This spring he gave a speech about the waste of federal monies on projects and choose Hillsboro’s Sawyers Crossing bridge which was restored as a pocket park but no longer carries traffic—at its south end a channel was cut for future flood relief and even foot traffic stops at the second arch, making it more like a pier. This image of Romney pointing to the bridge hit the national TV with Romney denouncing such projects.

New Hampshire is largely a libertarian-conservative state and there is a distrust of big government and federal expenditures.  There also is the traditional distrust of cultural educated elites, of which historic preservations are considered part of.

Our preservations groups are weak and separated.  The NH Div of Historic Resources counts itself lucky to even survive, and have survived by being quite and little noticed.  Remember that the New Hampshire legislature is dominated by the ascendent Tea Party which is steeped “in” property rights activists.

The NH Preservation Alliance, an advocacy group is likewise cowed, circulating its newsletter and email missives among a self-selected group of preservationists, rarely taking public stances, instead, relying on its supporters for funding and for back discrete projects.

The Alliance would not even show up for hearings on a bill I sponsored for creating a historic bridge storage depot system based on Vermont’s successful model.  It would not have cost anything, and even the NHDOT, while weary, considered it.  I never forgave the Alliance for its betrayal.

 

3. Can you present a couple examples to support your argument?

Yes.  This year, the state replaced the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, the state’s most highly rated historic bridge.  In a nod to our port city and its heritage, a slightly modernized replica is being constructed.  Even this replica was criticized by some for not being modern-looking enough.

While our state does not target historic bridges for removal, it has no preservation ethic either.  The Canterbury-Boscawen bridge was to be removed this summer as an attractive nuisance and liability.  It was abandoned and unused.  But there was no support by either town, and the state of course, while one of the nation’s richest, has no monies either.

Local newspapers have shown no support for saving our dwindling number of historic iron and steel truss bridges.  One, the Concord Monitor, actually editorializes against saving one near its printing plant.  This would be the Sewells Falls bridge.  Some detractors say the paper wants its tractor trailer trucks to have access to that rural/suburban road that are now limited by the bridge, one of the few surviving designed by NH’s engineer John Storrs.

 

4. Why would you recommend people visiting other states to see historic bridges (you mentioned Vermont as the best bet for people to see Hbs)?

No, with the exception of the Connecticut River Valley.  New Hampshire has been loath to spend money on bridges to Vermont, so a number have survived.  Now with a greater appreciation of said structures, they may continue as they make attractive gateways from the Green Mountain State, seducing monied tourists over the river.  We need more than cheap cigarettes and state liquor stores to keep quality visitors around.

 

5. In your opinion, do you think the US government is doing a great job in terms of improving infrastructure in general?

No. We’re doing a terrible job.  We seem preoccupied with our ongoing wars and maintain a non viable tax structure that favors the owning-class

 

6. What about historic bridge preservation in general?

With notable exceptions, we are doing a poor job of saving the best of our civil engineering heritage.  The public hasn’t been educated.  The engineers and architects are mute about the work of their forebears.  There seems to be little understanding of its importance with rare media forays like the documentary on the Roeblings and their bridges.  History and culture just are not embraced by the masses and our ruling classes are not providing good leadership here.

 

7. What would you like to see improved regarding the policies involving infrastructure, bridges and historic bridge preservation?

I would like to see the American nation cherish its heritage as the British and Commonwealth nations seem to do.  Instead we seem distracted by our day-to-day needs and wants.

 

 8. Who do you think will win the Presidential elections in November and why?

I’m not sure.  Neither candidate projects a strong, clear image.  Rather a murky situation arises, encouraged by the media which benefits greatly from the horse race mentality.

 

 

Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: Interview with Nathan Holth

Parshallburg Bridge in Chesaning, Michigan: It was one of only five Thacher through truss bridges remaining in the United States before flooding and ice jams destroyed the newly restored structure in 2008.

Author’s Notes: This is the first of many interviews that will be posted on the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, as the column will look at the successes of President Obama with transportation policies and with it, historic bridge preservation, what challenger Mitt Romney will bring to the country if elected President, and how the Presidential elections will impact the future of America’s infrastructure and bridge preservation and maintenance in general, which despite improvements since the Minneapolis Bridge disaster on 1 August, 2007 (see part I and part II for more details), there are still some critical flaws that need to be addressed, even after the November 6 elections take place.

The first interview is with Nathan Holth, webmaster of HistoricBridges.org, a website focusing on historic bridges, preservation and some interesting facts that he has gathered since the website was launched in 2005. Most of the coverage is in the eastern half of the US and large parts of Canada. In addition to that, he has been actively involved in the Section 106 and Section 4f Process of the 1966 Historic Preservation Laws and has worked with many parties in ensuring that historic bridges targeted for replacement are preserved, regardless of whether they are in place or in a different location.  Here are some questions I had for him, which he took some time to answer. Note that all pictures in this article are courtesy of HistoricBridges.org and the author would like to thank him for the usage.

Interview:

1. How big of a role have you played in historic bridge preservation since Obama was elected in 2008?
In May, 2011 myself and Luke Gordon worked to remove five abandoned pin-connected truss bridges in danger of collapse in Monroe County, Michigan and place them into storage for future restoration and reuse in new locations. In 2009, myself and Vern Mesler worked to provide the city of Mt. Pleasant, MI with information about the historic significance of a pin-connected pony truss (which turned out to be an 19th Century truss built by Wrought Iron Bridge Company) and the feasibility of its restoration. These efforts helped the city decide to rehabilitate the bridge for pedestrian use rather than replace it with a modern bridge. I have also participated as a consulting party in a number of bridge projects that triggered Section 106.

One of many pony truss bridges in Monroe County, Michigan

2. How would you rate the transportation policies in the US in comparison with the policies regarding preserving historic bridges?

Current United States policy toward all bridges (not just historic bridges) encourages deferring maintainance and repair of bridges while encouraging demolition and replacement projects even though these practices cost taxpayers more money in the long run. This is due to limited federal and state aid to help local agencies with costs of basic bridge maintainance and repair (these costs come exclusively out of local bridge agency’s pockets) while at the same time if a bridge has a sufficiency rating of below 50% (a rating that takes into account many aspects of a bridge including structural condition) the agency is elgible for and frequently awarded a huge grant from the federal and/or state government. As such, bridge agencies tend to be rewarded for allowing their bridges to deteriorate, since the grant money is more widely available for demolition and replacement of under 50% sufficiency bridges. From their perspective, they are saving money because the federal government or state pays for it. However from a taxpayer perspective, this will cost more in the long run and is wasteful in this time where the country needs to lower the national debt and budget deficits, while dealing with aging roads and bridges. The current policy is harmful to historic bridges because it is not possible to build a new historic bridge, a historic bridge can only continue to exist by being maintained or rehabilitated.

3. What improvements would you like to see made?

A far greater percentage of federal and state grants to bridge / transportation agencies should be devoted to aid for projects that involve maintaining, repairing, and rehabilitating existing bridges. This is a policy that would be beneficial for all bridges, not just historic bridges, although historic bridges would greatly benefit. Because it benefits bridges in general, such a policy should enjoy widespread support from the people, since even people who could care less about historic bridges could see the value in maintaining bridges better.

From a historic preservation perspective, it would be nice to see Section 106 apply to all public bridges, not just those with federal involvement. This may be tricky to make reality however because it would touch on a greater issue of states rights and sovereignty. It would also be nice to see Transportation Enhancement grants expanded, or a specific funding program for historic bridges be created similar to the Federal Highway Administration’s  covered bridge funding program, except that this program would preserve all types of historic bridges.

Bridge Street Bridge in Portland in Ionia County, Michigan. One way street, but it appears the politicians are going the wrong way regarding transportation policies and bridge preservation.

4. How would you rate Obama’s performance with regards to what was mentioned in nr.2?  Do you think it will have an impact on the presidential elections?
Obama has not made any improvements to the way in which bridges are funded. The focus continues to be on demolition and replacement projects with limited to no funding for improving existing bridges.

5. Do you think Romney will do better?

Romney would not do better. Both Obama, Romney, and also the various Senators and Representatives that hold positions on surface transportation committees appear to lack understanding of what actually goes on in the world of bridges. They hold the position that this country suffers from “aging” or “crumbling” “infrastructure” as they loosely describe it. They are correct that the “infrastructure” including bridges is crumbling, however I do disagree that “age” is a problem, since if an old bridge is properly maintained in good condition, it can still be safe and functional. These politicians feel that increasing funds is the primary solution to solve the crumbling infrastructure problem. They seem unaware that if we spent more money on rehabilitation and repair that we might be able to make each dollar go further and make greater improvements to infrastructure without increasing the level of funding. They also seem unaware of how wasteful it is to focus only on demolition and replacement.

At the same time, because liberal policy focuses on having government provide people and businesses with assistance to make sure everyone can be successful, liberals (like Obama) are more likely to continue to provide funds for infrastructure. Conservatives like Romney would more likely believe that the people do not need help from government and therefore feel that maintaining a government-owned system of roads and bridges is not a priority. As such I suppose in the short term reduced transportation funding would prevent some historic bridge demolition and replacement projects from moving forward. However it would not bring a halt to the deterioration of these bridges and they would eventually fail and have to be closed. We really do need funding for bridge projects. We just need to change the focus of those projects to maintaining existing bridges.

6. In your opinion, who will win the elections and how will that impact the transportation policies as well as that of historic bridge preservation?

I expect Obama to be reelected and I see no changes in existing surface transportation policy. However, if Romney is elected, I do not see any changes to surface transportation policy. There is a risk that Section 106 and Section 4(f) could be abolished under Romney however, because these protections for historic structures would be seen as government regulation. With the exception of social/religious issues, where Republicans strongly support big government and heavy regulation, Republicans support drastically reducing the role of government. Since historic preservation is not a religious issue, it is undoubtedly something Republicans wish to get rid of.

7. What are your future plans regarding historic bridge preservation?

I plan to continue projects similar to those I outlined above. Continued work through Section 106, and selective direct efforts to save specific bridges.

Thank you, Mr. Holth for your time and assistance in answering some of my questions and best of luck to you.  More interviews between now and 6 November are yet to come.