Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Historic Preservation and Transportation 

12-09-2015 17:35

If a proposed project… involves a historic facility or is located in an area of historic or scenic value, the Secretary may approve the project…if such project is designed to standards that allow for the preservation of such historic or scenic value and such project is designed with mitigation measures to allow preservation of such value and ensure safe use of the facility.

This passage from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) acknowledges what historic preservationists have known for a long time: decisions about the location and design of roads can have an enormous impact on historic resources. It also reminds us that transportation planners are under a legal obligation to respect historic resources in the landscapes through which the roads pass-and, moreover, that preservationists have a right to insist that they do so.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has two interrelated goals for national transportation policy. One is to guarantee that historic structures and landscapes are protected and enhanced when transportation investment decisions are made. The other is to ensure that transportation is the servant, rather than the master, of community development. We engage in an array of activities in support of these policy goals, especially as part of our ongoing efforts to fight sprawl and promote smart growth.

Our experience-and that of grass-roots preservationists around the country who have found themselves in conflict with transportation agencies over decisions that have not given sufficient weight to impacts on historic structures and values-has taught us that the chief instrument for achieving our goals is a working partnership between public and private advocates of historic preservation and transportation agencies at all levels of government. Admittedly, it is not always easy to form these partnerships, but more and more preservationists are committed to meeting this challenge effectively.

This issue of Forum Journal is devoted to a number of policy areas where contacts- and, in too many instances, confrontations-with transportation officials occur because road decisions are adversely affecting historic resources. We hope that the articles that follow will encourage preservationists to see the value in the partnership approach with transportation agencies and to support efforts within their states and communities to find ways of melding transportation and preservation objectives.

Shaping Federal Laws

The National Trust for Historic Preservation was a vigorous leader in a coalition that shaped the progressive features of national surface transportation policy during the ISTEA debate in 1991. Our aim was to empower preservationists as effective advocates for saving and enhancing historic resources by enabling them to participate directly in transportation decision making at all levels of government- federal, state, and local. Happily, we succeeded. The enactment of ISTEA marked an epochal shift away from long-standing surface transportation policies that had spent billions on massive road-construction projects, shortchanged other transportation options, and drained the life out of countless communities.

The architect of ISTEA and its most forceful and articulate advocate was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, whom the National Trust honored in 1999 with its Louise duPont Crowninshield Award, which recognizes superlative lifetime achievement in the field of historic preservation. Senator Moynihan understood better than any other advocate that shortsighted transportation decisions had been responsible for the destruction of more historic resources than any other federal program (with the possible exception of urban renewal), particularly during the decades when mighty interstates were rammed through the older commercial and residential areas of dozens of American communities, destroying historic buildings and neighbor-hoods and facilitating the dis-investment and decay that continue to afflict the centers of cities and small towns throughout the country. As early as 1960, Moynihan shared his insights into the flaws of national transportation policy in an essay entitled "New Roads and Urban Chaos," in which he decried the failure of policy makers to realize that the interstate highway program was bringing about changes for the worse in both the efficiency of transportation and the livability of communities.

Moynihan`s determination and vision shaped new legislation-ISTEA-that heralded a dramatic and welcome change in policy direction. This change is reflected in four of the law`s major components:

  • half of all federal transportation funding was given new flexibility for use on highways, transit, or other options;
  • decisions about the use of these funds were to be made through inclusive and honest planning at the state and metropolitan levels, with meaningful input from citizens and local officials;
  • significant funding was reserved for maintenance of existing highway, bridge, and transit systems; and
  • small but important sums were set aside to support alternatives to the highway system and reduce its negative effects on society.

Translating Policy into Reality

All of the hard work we have done together to bring about transportation reform in Washington is meaningless unless it results in positive change in American communities and the quality of life they support. Having a choice among several transportation options-being able, for example, to walk to school, bike to the store, or ride the train to work-is a hallmark of community livability. But these choices will not be made available unless people demand them. The challenge facing us, therefore, is to encourage Americans to think of "transportation" as much more than a synonym for "car" and to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by the new legislation.

The National Trust`s transportation policy initiative, far from being an isolated effort, is a key component of a broad range of programmatic activities aimed at bringing cities and small towns back to life, supporting land-use policies that manage sprawl and encourage sustainable development, and demonstrating the economic and social value of preserving and enhancing historic structures and neighborhoods. We feel strongly that transportation policy, having contributed greatly to urban decay and small-town disinvestment in the past, must now promote community revitalization.

Ordinary citizens across the country are already taking advantage of the power that ISTEA gave them to bring about change in transportation policy. Having worked hard to secure the legislative framework for meaningful reform, the National Trust is now working equally hard to support these grass-roots leaders in every way it can and to encourage others to join the fight where it counts the most-on their own streets, in their own neighborhoods and communities, where opportunities abound to see that transportation decisions conform to both the public will and the plain language of the law.

The transportation programs, and the other programs and policies discussed in this issue of Forum Journal, represent enormously important opportunities for preservationists. But in many cases, effective utilization of these programs depends on our willingness to build partnerships with state transportation officials, to create and expand implementation opportunities that state officials may not have envisioned or considered fully.

The components of genuine reform in national transportation policy are falling into place. Strengthened public participation in road planning, a decision-making role for the local communities through which the roads pass, a commitment to the principles of context sensitive design, a willingness to give full weight to the legal protections that Congress has extended to historic resources -all of these are part of the transportation reform pro-gram that concerned citizens are committed to bringing about in their states. But these tools are only as effective as our utilization of them.

Speaking on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I express my deep appreciation for the time and effort that contributors have devoted to the essays that follow. I hope that you find the essays informative, thought-provoking, and sufficiently stimulating to lead you to conversations with state transportation leaders about ways of working together. By building lasting partnerships based on mutual trust and respect, preservationists can take a permanent seat at the tables where transportation decisions are being made. These partner-ships, if they are effective, can help advance our mission of protecting America`s irreplaceable heritage.

Publication Date: Summer 2000

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Author(s):Richard Moe