Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Wilson Bridge - A Section 106 Adventure in Saving Indiana’s Historic Bridges 

12-09-2015 17:35

The directions were simple: head east on Main Street out of Delphi to the first road, turn right and keep going back in time. Pretty soon you’ll find it—the Wilson Bridge. Built on the site of Carrigan’s Ford in 1898, the graceful simplicity of this Pratt “through truss” has captured the hearts of those who passionately believe that Indiana’s historic bridges are worth protecting.

In a scene playing out across the state, headlines of the April 8, 1988, edition of the Carroll County Comet declared “County to Wilson Bridge Supporters—Time’s Up.” The commissioners had spoken: “Get out of the way; the Wilson Bridge is in the way of our idea of progress for the county.” To the opposition, the cost was too high—$1.2 million dollars for a new bridge and the loss of several acres of pristine Indiana rural landscape. It made little sense to spend four times the rehabilitation cost to provide a crossing for a narrow road with a daily traffic count of less than 100.

With the battle lines drawn, the Carroll County Historic Bridge Coalition turned to two provisions of federal law—Section 106 of the Preservation Act of 1966, 16 U.S.C. § 470f, and Section 4(f) of the Transportation Act of 1966, 49 U.S.C. § 303. Both apply to any project involving federal funding that impacts a structure eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Section 106 calls for review of the impact on the site and mandates public involvement. Section 4(f) establishes that in the case of transportation projects, historic resources must be avoided unless there is no feasible alternative. Unfortunately in Indiana, preservation advocates found that transportation projects involving historic bridges were not given the level of scrutiny required by Section 4(f). At the same time Section 106 review was becoming little more than a paperwork exercise to justify the construction of a new structure, even though in many cases, the existing bridge could be rehabilitated at a fraction of the cost of replacement.

Indiana it seems was not alone. “Do we live in a land governed by law or the transient whims of elected officials?” was the question being asked nationally, and it needed a test case to answer. Wilson Bridge would become that case. Preservationists hoped to build a strong alliance at the local, state, and national levels and force the application of federal law. Indiana’s Historic Bridges were included on the “Ten Most Endangered” list by Indiana Landmarks, and also on the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2002. For five years, a group of volunteers coordinated the advocacy effort for the Wilson Bridge with invaluable assistance provided by Indiana Landmarks and the legal department of the National Trust. Volunteers attended Section 106 consulting party meetings and prepared detailed rebuttals, in addition to community outreach and education.

A Test Case Gets Results

Finally, all that could be said was said—it was time to put this case to the test. In the spring of 2002, the Department of the Interior, in exercising its review and comment role under Section 4(f), simply stated: “We do not believe that all possible planning to minimize potential harm to Section 4(f) resources has been employed.” A few months later, the Federal Highway Administration’s Indiana Division (FHWA) brought representatives of interested public agencies together in an effort to engage in the development of a programmatic agreement addressing historic bridges statewide.

In listing Indiana’s Historic Bridges on its “11 Most Endangered Historic Places List,” the National Trust stated that “Indiana needs a bridge preservation plan that takes a comprehensive look at these endangered resources throughout the state and sets clear priorities for preservation, with funding to allow for rehabilitation.” While Indiana preservationists applauded the listing, this was only the beginning of a journey requiring focused coordination across the state. Within a few short months, Indiana Landmarks announced the formation of the Historic SPANs task force with the stated goal of “forming an effective alliance with state and federal agencies in order to develop a comprehensive historic bridge rehabilitation program for Indiana.” Additionally, the SPANs task force would provide advocacy in coordination with local preservation organizations as a “Consulting Party” for a number of Section 106 reviews that were underway for historic bridge replacement projects.

The Indiana Historic Bridge Framework

In an effort to reverse entrenched public policy, SPANs reviewed existing policy and developed an “Indiana Historic Bridge Framework” that included:

  • Establishing comprehensive and consistent historic review criteria.
  • Conducting a statewide historic spans survey and review.
  • Recognizing the need for early involvement of local and state preservation advocates in transportation projects involving historic bridges.
  • Establishing the necessary oversight to ensure consistency and quality of Section 106/Section 4(f) management by consulting engineers.
  • Providing greater oversight ofthe Section 106/Section 4(f) review process by FHWA—especially in the area of defining the Purpose and Need for historic bridge projects to ensure that the purpose was not defined as simply “replacement.”
  • Encouraging the adoption of special American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Guidelines for Low-Volume Local Roads in Indiana’s bridge inspection and funding process.
  • Establishing a funding process for the rehabilitation of historic bridges.

This framework served as the basis for advocacy with the FHWA, Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT), the state historic preservation office (SHPO), and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). This framework also recognized the need to maintain pressure on the existing system to follow federally-mandated review guidelines and to make sure local preservation interests were included when dealing with historic structures. For example, when the Indiana FHWA established its formal committee to develop a Historic Bridge Programmatic Agreement, it deliberately excluded the preservation community. Although a variety of special interest organizations outside the agency were engaged initially, representation from the preservation community was deliberately excluded. In response, SPANs identified threatened historic bridges for inclusion in a “Watch List,” ultimately working with the National Trust and legal counsel in the role of “Consulting Parties” for 23 distinct historic bridge projects. This required SPANs members to conduct a detailed analysis of each project in preparation for engagement and comments at Section 106 consultation meetings.

Furthermore, certain bridge replacement projects were identified as legal test cases for potential litigation to enforce compliance with Section 106 and Section 4(f). In an effort to encourage more effective communications with federal/state agencies and the preservation community, SPANs took the approach of “transparent” communications with state and federal agencies—sharing its concerns and planned actions. This included inviting agency representatives to participate in SPANs meetings in an effort to foster communication and find common ground for moving forward. This direct engagement approach resulted in a noticeable shift among the transportation agencies in their attention to preservation interests, with Indiana Landmarks and SPANs eventually being asked participate directly in developing the Programmatic Agreement.

The Programmatic Agreement

The strategy of focusing on the Indiana Historic Bridge Framework while maintaining pressure on existing projects yielded results. In late 2006, a Programmatic Agreement regarding the management and preservation of Indiana’s Historic Bridges was signed between the FHWA, the SHPO, the ACHP, and INDOT. The first major provision of the Programmatic Agreement was the completion in 2010 of a statewide survey detailing the National Register eligibility status of all bridges in the state constructed prior to 1966, based on criteria specific to the context of Indiana’s transportation history. Each National Register-eligible span was identified as either “Select” or “Non-Select.” The Programmatic Agreement defines “Select” bridges as those most suitable for preservation and excellent examples of a given type of historic bridge. Since the information used to make these determinations was developed as a part of the survey process, SPANs, along with Indiana Landmarks, mobilized the local preservation community to engage in the public involvement process as the decisions were being developed and the methodology was applied for each bridge.

The second major provision of the Programmatic Agreement defined the process necessary to satisfy the historic review requirements of Section 106 and to ensure that designs are reviewed for context sensitivity once a bridge is determined to be “Select” or “Non-Select.” “Select” bridges will not be demolished if they are part of a transportation project involving federal or local funding. Instead, preservation for continued use, bypassing, or relocation would be the only acceptable alternatives. “Non-Select” bridges could be demolished if it were shown that preservation options are not feasible and prudent after a streamlined historic review process.

Serving a “Watchdog” Role

Finally, even with a Programmatic Agreement in place, SPANs continues to function in a “watchdog” capacity to ensure consistency and quality in the execution of Section 106 and 4(f) processes defined by the Programmatic Agreement. In general, the Programmatic Agreement and the statewide inventory of historic bridges have been effective in helping to change the culture among consulting engineers in Indiana, by encouraging more widespread adoption of rehabilitation for historic bridges, rather than replacement. In the current economic climate of severely constrained budgets, these historic preservation projects, which are typically less expensive than demolition and replacement, have also helped leverage public dollars.

Publication Date: Winter 2012

#ForumJournal #Section106 #Transportation

Author(s):Paul Brandenburg