Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Saving Historic Roads 

12-09-2015 17:35

Across the United States our historic roads are in danger. They are being lost at an alarming rate to replacement, realignment, and outright destruction. At risk are our parkways, first transcontinental highways, and early freeways. While interest in these roads as historic resources is beginning, it is occurring at the same time in which new safety standards, aggressive driving, and congestion threaten their very existence. For a growing number of individuals in historic preservation, transportation, planning and even engineering, a wake-up call is being issued for the recognition and preservation of historic roads.

Roadways such as the Bronx River Parkway (1906-1924) in New York, for example, which was not only a model of environmental reclamation, but also such a significant advance in highway design that it would serve as a prototype for the Autobahn in Germany and the then-emerging California freeway system, have become so threatened, that the parkway was listed as one of America`s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1996.

Many of our nation`s historic roads still function admirably. Historic roads provide direct and efficient commuting links, take us to places of natural beauty and recreation, and link communities. The fact that the general public still uses these resources on a daily basis in many ways diminishes recognition of their historic value. Consider the Bronx River Parkway , for example. There are no velvet ropes separating the parkway from the surrounding community. No admission fees. No guides in period costume to whisk you away on an interpretive tour in a Model T. Perhaps unfortunately, the Bronx River Park-way still functions quite effectively in moving today`s modern automobiles. Most of the parkway`s daily users are unaware of the road`s immense and innovative contributions to transportation design and technology (the first use of a median, separated grade interchanges for automobiles, and night lighting outside an urban area). So, like many urban roads, the parkway faces constant citizen clamoring for more lanes and faster speeds, unaware such requests are equivalent to developing a food court in the dining room of Jefferson`s Monticello.

Similar pressures across the United States are jeopardizing our significant historic road resources. Parkways, U.S. routes, and early freeways are being altered or lost as state highway departments, engineers, and road managers determine the need for additional roadway capacity, safety, or upgrading. Decisions to remove canopy trees, stone walls, and elegant balustrades; the addition of lanes on park-ways severing the motorist`s relationship with the landscape; and the loss of views and viewsheds are destroying resources few yet recognize as historic. What is being lost is not only the history of roadway construction and engineering in the United States, but, in many instances, the history of landscape architecture and environmental reclamation. What`s driving these decisions? Safety, liability concerns, and ignorance.

At Issue: Safety and Liability

Providing a safe driving environment for both motorists and other highway users is of paramount importance. For historic roads to survive, the design, preservation, and engineering communities must recognize that safety and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive. Innovative and thoughtful design can enhance safety while honoring the innovations of the past. Yet faced with bigger vehicles, higher speeds, and aggressive driving, many historic roads are having greater difficulty providing a safe driving environment. The question arises: to what extent must roads designed for different uses and speeds be forced to accommodate modern demands?

While some historic roads do pose safety concerns, many more are being destroyed because of fear of liability. Roads gently aligned in the landscape at the beginning of the 20th century are now being straightened for fear that a driver traveling at an excessive rate of speed will lose control of his or her vehicle and sue the local or state government because the road does not meet currently held design practices.

Inconsistency in the Application of Standards

While many threats to the integrity of historic roads come from changes in use or are generated by safety responses to liability concerns, other destructive actions occurring on and along our historic roads have come from the inconsistent, irregular, or inappropriate application of the current recommended standards.

The origin of most state and local highway standards can be found in the recommended guidelines and policies for highway design in the Green Book, a publication of AASHTO-the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Its purpose is to recommend safe practices for the planning, design, and construction of roadways. The Green Book establishes a range of accept-able values for highway design. For example, the recommended width of a country lane is between 5.4 and 7.2 meters (roughly 18 to 24 feet). For historic road preservationists, the Green Book is most often encountered during the reconstruction or rehabilitation of a historic road.

Unfortunately, in recent years many state and local governments, courts, and members of the transportation community have held the AASHTO Green Book as an inflexible and rigid document. Perpetuating a myth that there is no flexibility in the publication and that the safety of the motoring public cannot be accomplished in alternative manners, the Green Book`s use and interpretation by many in the transportation profession has become somewhat of a nemesis to the preservation community.

What must be remembered is that the Green Book recommends guidelines to the states and local governments for the design of roadways. No state or local jurisdiction is required to adopt these guidelines. However, almost every state and the majority of local governments have adopted the AASHTO guidelines in full or in part.

In addition to state and local use, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has adopted the Green Book as policy for all federal roads and construction projects in the National Highway System (NHS). For projects off the NHS, the AASHTO Green Book does not need to be followed. In fact, the Vermont Agency of Transportation has developed its own guidelines which recognize the value of historic roads and bridges as a matter of policy.

Exceptions to the Green Book guidelines can be sought for road projects exhibiting special characteristics or needs. The Oregon Department of Transportation takes full advantage of flexibilities within the Green Book or seeks exceptions when addressing the management of the historic Columbia River Highway.

Thoughtful attention to historic road needs, such as occurs in Vermont or Oregon, however, is not the norm. Frequently, and understandably, lacking the resources to sensitively manage historic roads, many local and state highway departments apply current standards and expectations to roads designed in the past. Because of the lack of policies and design standards tailored to historic roads, and the heightened awareness of safety and liability issues in recent years, management agencies often apply the toughest standards to avoid the possibility of a citation of contributory negligence in the event of an accident. In many instances, historic roads, because of the lack of clarity about their position in the transportation world, have been held by the courts to the highest standards. As a result, sections of historic roads that may have the characteristics of a low-volume rural road, are, in instances, being held account-able to arterial, or even freeway, design standards.

With the provision of a safe driving environment the ultimate goal of all concerned with historic roads, it seems reckless to continue depending on limited review and interpretation of the Green Book without investigating the flexibilities that are available. Only with a clear and reasonable expectation of the uses of these roadways can aesthetic concerns for historic resources be effectively studied and managed.

Historic Roads Defined

Obviously the preservation of resources as diverse as the Pasadena Freeway (originally constructed as and now renamed the Arroyo Seco Parkway) and the Rockefeller Carriage Roads at Acadia National Park would necessitate a framework for proper education and a vocabulary for dialogue. In order to better understand this diverse resource group and, most importantly, to direct effective policy and management challenges to threatened historic roads, the National Trust identified the three principal types of historic roads: aesthetic, engineered, and cultural. Recognition of these types allows for appropriate preservation and engineering solutions. A road with an associated designed landscape (aesthetic) presents different challenges than, say, the New Jersey Turnpike (engineered).

Aesthetic routes represent historic roads for which the primary rationale for development was the design and provision of a specific visitor experience. Aesthetic routes such as parkways and park roads have, historically, been intensively designed and developed for the purpose of leisure, recreation, and commemoration. They have a documented origin and construction date. Never intended as the fastest or quickest route, such roads typically follow the natural topography of the region, and are most often associated with a designed landscape or park space. In urban areas, park boulevards and monumental avenues exhibit an equally high level of detail and composition. Examples include the Bronx . River Parkway, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

Roads designed for a specific transportation goal represent a larger category of roads than those designed for aesthetic purposes. Engineered routes, like aesthetic routes, will have a documented idea, mandate, or construction date. These are roads that may have been developed to open isolated areas to commerce, link the nation, or simply serve our communities. The aesthetic experience was often secondary. Their alignment and detail are important in their representation of technology and culture. Most generally, for these resources, speed, safety, and economy determined the design. Because of location or remaining details, however, many engineered routes have taken on aesthetic qualities and associations. Many city grid patterns and our first transcontinental highways are typical of this category. Examples include the Lincoln Highway, New York to San Francisco; the National Road, Cumberland, Md., to Vandalia, Ill., (Old US 40); and US 101 along the Pacific coast.

Cultural routes represent roads that evolved through necessity or tradition without a formal initial goal or objective guiding location. These roads, now in automobile use, have generally undergone significant changes and modifications since their inception, often leading to multiple layers of development. These may be roads that evolved from Native American or colonial trails, or simply from convenient connections between farm villages. Road construction projects at different times in the route`s history may have left different layers of interesting historic resources. Examples include the Boston Post Road; El Camino Real, California, New Mexico and Texas; and the Ashley River Road in South Carolina.

Saving Historic Roads

Ultimately, understanding of the resource, available options and flexibilities, and a commitment to preservation can enhance both safety and historic preservation. The following examples from Connecticut, Kansas, and California showcase both happy accidents and careful strategies to address historic roads.

In Connecticut, when a number of bridges along the Merritt Parkway needed to be widened because of safety concerns, it was determined that new construction with concrete beams and simulated arches-a false facade concealing an ordinary flat deck bridge-would be less expensive than construction modeled on the historic reinforced concrete arches that gracefully span the parkway. That was true. So, a determination to rebuild with simulated arches was made.

Fortunately for the parkway and the people of Connecticut, a savvy Department of Transportation administrator discovered that the concrete beam and simulated arch (experimented with on a few bridges) was not always less expensive than a genuine concrete arch and that it had a significantly shorter life span than the historic (genuine arch) concrete construction. Concrete construction of the bridges, recreating the architectural detail for which the parkway bridges are famous, over time, was competitive with simulated arches. The bridges have been reconstructed in concrete as genuine arches.

It wasn`t cost, but liability that threatened historic bridges in Kansas. Many local jurisdictions, fearful of potential liability threats, were destroying well-loved landmarks simply because of narrow lanes or reduced clearances. To assist local communities in the preservation of these resources, the Attorney General of Kansas issued an informal opinion regarding the potential tort liability of local government entities with respect to the repair and maintenance of bridges in 1995.

The informal opinion suggests that historic bridges that are maintained in good condition, free of demonstrated or chronic safety problems, and built to the accept-able standard of their day, should not be a liability bur-den for local communities. Consider a Kansas bridge a few feet narrower than would be constructed today. Under this informal opinion, the Attorney General`s office suggests the bridge width is not a liability issue. Should an accident occur, the injured party must demonstrate another breech of the government`s responsibility-poor maintenance, improper information, or hazardous pavement surface, for example.

Lastly, the historic Arroyo Seco Parkway (1940) in Los Angeles has benefited from an administrative decision. The parkway, best known as the Pasadena Freeway, was classified as a segment of the California Freeway system-that classification carrying with it a number of management and legal obligations. In order to better manage the parkway as a historic road, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) created a new category: historic parkway. This determination enables the state to apply greater flexibilities and creative options for management that are precluded for roads classified as a freeway. In order to best understand the new options now available for the parkway, Caltrans worked with the Historic American Engineering Record of the National Park Service in the summer of 1999 to document this early California prototype.

Historic roads in the United States are increasingly being recognized as significant landmarks (such as the Historic Columbia River Highway) or contributing features in a historic district (the Granitoid street pavement in Duluth, Minn). Whether nationally significant or locally valued, the historic preservation community is becoming a strong voice in this new and interesting field of preservation.

Publication Date: Summer 2000


Author(s):Dan Marriott