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.

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One Response to Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: Interview with Nathan Holth

  1. Will Truax says:

    Nice -

    Always interested in both the perspectives of, and a greater sense of background, and of course what it is that drives passions among others in the historic bridge community.

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