Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Federal Highway Administration`s Historic Preservation Programs 

12-09-2015 17:35

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), a surface transportation agency within the Department of Transportation, has a long history of encouraging, supporting, and funding historic preservation efforts. Following the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which required federal agencies to take into account the impact of their projects on historic properties, the FHWA took several steps to address preservation concerns. The FHWA was among the first federal agencies to develop standardized training in historic preservation through its National Highway Institute in 1976-77. Other early efforts to address preservation issues included developing a manual of mitigation measures for transportation agencies and preservation groups; supporting interagency conferences and workshops on historic preservation matters; and creating award programs to recognize exemplary historic preservation efforts as an important component of FHWA`s mission.

Today, the following historic preservation issues are an important part of FHWA`s work.

Protecting Historic Bridges

In the early 1980s the FHWA encouraged state departments of transportation (DOTs) to identify state-owned bridges eligible for the National Register. Interest in historic bridges grew to the point that in 1987 Congress passed the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Act, which encouraged rehabilitation of historic bridges. This legislation required states to conduct inventories of historic bridges and then seek to donate historic bridges to a responsible party rather than demolishing them.

To find new uses for deficient and deteriorated bridges, FHWA and the state DOTs sought new partners who would accept donated bridges. State and local park organizations were willing recipients, and bridges were placed in public parks on trails or as monuments. The bridge relocation program was not problem free. Often no group could be found that was willing to accept the bridge. The costs of continued maintenance even for bike and pedestrian use were very high.

As local communities expressed the desire to retain the original rehabilitated bridge, state DOTs increased their efforts to repair older bridges. Innovative techniques to strengthen deteriorated decks were employed in Washington, Virginia, and Pennsylvania in order to retain original bridges in place. Some states tried retaining the original bridge, closing it to vehicular use, and building a replacement bridge next to the original.

The FHWA is looking into ways to better protect historic bridges. A new FHWA study, which will be released this year, will offer guidance on techniques for rehabilitating historic bridges and will provide information on best practices that may be applied across the country.

Involving the Public

The FHWA believes that greater public involvement in planning and developing projects will result in better projects from safety, mobility and environmental perspectives. The agency is taking steps to involve the public in transportation planning through the following programs:

National Scenic Byways
The National Scenic Byways Program was established by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 and re-authorized in 1998 by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. The program provides for the recognition of highways that are outstanding examples of scenic, historic, recreational, cultural, archeological, and/or natural qualities by designating them as either National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads. National Scenic Byways possess outstanding qualities that exemplify the regional characteristics of our country, while All-American Roads represent our country`s finest byways. Since the program began, the Secretary of Transportation has designated a total of nine All-American Roads and 44 National Scenic Byways.

The designation program is voluntary and dependent upon the submission of a nomination by states or federal land management agencies. The designation imposes no federal controls on land use or development.

The program provides about $22 million annually (through 2003) in grants to the states for designated roads. Of the eight eligible grant categories, one is of particular interest to preservationists: "Protecting historical, archeological, and cultural resources adjacent to byways." For example, grant funds can be used to rehabilitate or renovate a resource specifically for the establishment of a scenic byway interpretive facility and/or an interpretive site; for the restoration of historic features that contribute substantially to the intrinsic qualities of the scenic highway; or for efforts leading to the inclusion of a property (related to surface transportation) in the National Register of Historic Places.

What types of roads are designated? Several nationally designated byways focus on historic or cultural qualities that tell the story of the region or our nation. For example, the Selma-to-Montgomery March Byway (US Route 80) has been designated an All-American Road and a National Historic Trail. This route achieved historic importance as a result of the civil rights movement, specific events that occurred during the march in 1965, and the association with persons important in our history.

Byways also may be designated for their historic engineering qualities. For example, the Columbia River Gorge highway was designed and constructed as a scenic road, striking a balance between engineering, the terrain, and surrounding environs. It was completed in 1922, serving recreational needs as well as commercial trucks hauling agricultural products from the interior of Oregon to Portland. The design of the road and the architectural details incorporated into guardrails, tunnels, and bridges make this an engineering landmark.

The Coal Heritage Trail National Scenic Byway in West Virginia interprets the history and culture of the coal industry and the impact it had on the physical and social environment. Many resources, including coal company towns, tipples, railroad structures, strip mines, and reclamation projects are being transformed into interpretive sites.

The Santa Fe Trail in Colorado and New Mexico was one of America`s first trade routes and a critical route in the westward expansion of the United States. This National Scenic Byway interprets historic sites located along the route such as trading posts, stage stops, graves, and ruins.

Transportation Enhancements
The Transportation Enhancements (TE) program is a federal initiative that focuses on enhancing the travel experience and fostering the quality of life in American communities. ISTEA and now TEA-21 require states to reserve 10 percent of their surface transportation funding for designated transportation enhancements activities. Communities may use the program to restore historic buildings, renovate streetscapes, develop transportation museums and visitor centers, construct sidewalks and bike facilities, and convert abandoned railroad rights-of-way to trails. Many localities also use the program to acquire, restore, and preserve scenic areas.

All TE projects must be one of the 12 activities defined in the law and must relate to surface transportation. A number of eligible activities relate directly to historic preservation, such as acquisition of scenic easements and scenic or historic sites, rehabilitation and operation of historic transportation buildings, structures, or facilities, archeological planning and research, and establishment of transportation museums. Other activities can relate indirectly, for example, bicycle or pedestrian trails or reuse of abandoned railroad corridors that access/cross historic sites can provide awareness of historic proper-ties to a wider variety of users. Enhancement activities that have involved historic resources include the Thomas Jefferson Parkway (Route 23) in Virginia; the Grafton County Senior Center in Plymouth, N.H.; the Golden Gate Beach Chalet in San Francisco; and the Elizabeth Railroad Station in New Jersey. These innovative projects included improvements for safe pedestrian use, sensitive historic rehabilitation, and adaptive use as a regional senior center/trail rest stop or a lounge/restaurant or active transportation hub.

In King County, Wash., 18 acres of historic and scenic open space, located on a DOT designated heritage corridor, were preserved through an easement to limit development on the Meadowbrook Farm. A similar effort in Richmond, Vt., will preserve historic and scenic views of the Richmond Flats and Monitor Barns landscape.

Most archeological resources are located under ground and out of sight. When these resources are identified early in project development they can be avoided or mitigated through appropriate scientific excavation. One example is the Grand Isle archeological exhibit in Vermont. A permanent exhibit highlights both the (pre-European) prehistoric Native American settlement and the early commercial history of Gordon`s Landing.

Transportation and Community and System Preservation Program
Section 1221 of TEA-21 established the Transportation and Community and System Preservation Pilot Program (TCSP), a component of the Administration`s Livability Initiative, which funds projects in communities across America that ensure a high quality of life and strong, sustainable economic growth. The TCSP was authorized at $20 million in FY 1999 and at $25 million per year for FY 2000 through 2003. States, local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, and tribal governments are eligible for TCSP discretionary grants. Eligible activities include planning and implementing strategies to improve the efficiency of the existing transportation system; reducing the environmental impacts of transportation; and examining land use and development patterns and identifying strategies to encourage private sector development that achieves these goals.

Context-Sensitive Design
Context-sensitive design integrates highways and communities. This approach encourages designers to balance the transportation goals of mobility and safety with community values by enhancing and preserving a community`s cultural and natural resources, and at the same time not establishing any new standards or criteria.

Success in context sensitive design requires an inter-disciplinary team and community involvement throughout planning and implementation. With early and continuous collaboration, this team may identify valuable features to incorporate in the project. The cut-and-cover design of I-35 through Duluth, Minn., and of I-10 in Phoenix, Ariz., are examples utilizing the concept of context-sensitive design. In Duluth, designers placed the roadway below the existing ground level and covered it over with a park to save a historic district and to improve pedestrian access to the Lake Superior waterfront.

Five pilot states-Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, and Utah-are working cooperatively with FHWA to incorporate con-text- sensitive design concepts into their daily activities. The states are developing strategies, tools, and training materials that reflect geographical distinctions. Regional training activities have been sponsored in Connecticut, Maryland, and Kentucky. Training includes not only technical modules, but also communication skills and public involvement techniques.

For three years, the FHWA and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have been actively implementing context-sensitive design. In 1997, FHWA completed a publication entitled Flexibility in Highway Design to help designers and planners develop environmentally sensitive projects. To complement this publication, AASHTO is developing additional chapters dealing with geometric design, environmental design, safety, and liability issues.

Traffic Calming Initiatives
The main goal of traffic calming is to increase safety and preserve physical, cultural, environmental, and aesthetic values. With proper choices of materials and design, traffic calming can be compatible in historic districts. When traffic through historic districts is light and slow, visitors and residents experience a feeling of tranquility, safety, and com-fort. In many older cities, traffic calming has been used in conjunction with restoration projects and historic trolley bus lines. The combination of transportation, heritage, commerce, and tourism has been effective.

Traffic calming also works for rural historic districts. In a historic rural section of Vermont, slowpoints, gateways, and pavement treatments have been employed to control traffic. Tree-lined medians, raised intersections, and mini-traffic circles are among the measures proposed for a historic section of Route 50 passing through Middle-burg, Va.

To help local governments and grass-roots organizations understand how traffic calming can benefit communities, FHWA hopes to strengthen its research initiative and information sharing activities while encouraging communities to assume a role in shaping policy on traffic calming.


The FHWA and the National Trust are currently putting finishing touches on the second edition of Building on the Past, Traveling to the Future, a booklet about transportation enhancement efforts. We hope this issue of the Forum Journal and the second edition of Building on the Past will help transportation officials and preservationists to look to the future and seek common ground. Let us look beyond past mistakes and poor judgment and seek to become actively involved in the transportation planning process at the state and metropolitan levels. Let us use the NEPA process to identify and consider social, economic, and environmental impacts. If we work together we will be able to bridge the gap between preserving the past and living for the future.

Publication Date: Summer 2000


Author(s):Bruce A. Eberle