Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: An Interview with James Garvin

Meadow Bridge in Shelburne. A bridge where two of its spans were moved onto shore. Its future is in doubt. Photo taken by Craig Hanchey

This article is the second part of the series on the dire state of New Hampshire’s historic bridges and its connection with historic bridge preservation policies and the upcoming Presidential election in November. While the first part focused on the dire state of historic bridge preservation policies based on the interview with Rep. Steve Lindsey (you can click here for more details), this part focuses on the problem with historic bridge preservation on an even wider scale, based on an interview with historian James Garvin, who has worked with historic bridge preservation in the state for over 25 years. While the answers to some of the questions are lengthy, they do present some light on some of the policies that exist and for the most part, should be improved. Mr. Garvin presented a proposal to President Obama in 2008 to integrate historic preservation into the grand scheme to faster economic growth despite the recession the country was in as a result of the Great Economic Meltdown. Was this issue addressed by President Obama? Or did he brush it past and allowed for challenger Mitt Romney, who resides in neighboring Massachusetts, to bring this issue to the public’s attention. We’ll find out as Mr. Garvin tackles the issues of policies and the shortcomings that still exist both in his state as well as the rest of the country. Here is the interview in full length:

How long have you been working with the topic of historic bridges and preservation? What aspects did your work focus on?

I began to work on the preservation of historic bridges some twenty years ago, shortly after joining the staff of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources (the State Historic Preservation Office).  My employment as state architectural historian entailed regular meetings with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) on many bridge and highway projects, with particular emphasis on projects involving historic bridges.  While New Hampshire has a strong commitment to the preservation of wooden covered bridges, the commitment toward preservation of metal truss and concrete bridges was almost nonexistent when I started to work for the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

The weak impetus toward preservation of these more modern bridge types was strengthened in 1987, the year I began to work for the SHPO, with the passage of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA). This act created a national historic bridge program that codified a Congressional finding that it is in the national interest to encourage the rehabilitation, reuse, and preservation of bridges that are significant in American history, architecture, engineering, and culture (23 U.S.C. 144(o)).  The passage of STURAA required (and funded) a statewide survey of historic bridges in New Hampshire, providing the state with the first inventory of bridges that should be given special consideration for preservation.  Despite the existence of that inventory, New Hampshire still has not made an earnest commitment to the preservation of historic bridges other than covered bridges, and about 50% of the metal truss bridges that were extant in 1987 have since been lost.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (one being best), how would you rate historic bridge preservation in New Hampshire in comparison  to the state’s infrastructure as a whole?

I would rate New Hampshire’s efforts at preservation of historic bridges at 8 on a scale of 10 (one being best).  As one example, New Hampshire has lost about half of its metal truss bridges during the past 25 years.  As mitigation for demolishing historic bridges, NHDOT several years ago made a theoretical commitment to drafting a bridge preservation plan and creating areas for the temporary storage of replaced metal bridges for re-use elsewhere, but there is little if any indication of actual progress on these fronts, at least in a way that guarantees the preservation of key bridges.

A few New Hampshire bridges have been selected for preservation as mitigation for the removal of others of their kind, but NHDOT has several times reneged on its commitment to preserve even these few.  One such bridge, the open-spandrel concrete arch Vilas Bridge (1930) over the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont, was guaranteed perpetual preservation when a similar bridge was demolished, yet Vilas Bridge is now closed to traffic with a severely deteriorating deck, and NHDOT has not included its rehabilitation in the state’s next ten-year highway work plan.  As a result, the Hampshire Preservation Alliance, a statewide non-profit preservation advocacy organization, designated Vilas Bridge as one of New Hampshire’s most endangered historic structures in October 2012.

Another theoretically preserved bridge, a double-intersection Warren pony truss of 1925 in Dover, was replaced but safely set aside on new piers for perpetual preservation in 1986.  It was not maintained or interpreted as a historic engineering structure, but just placed next to the new bridge.  Because of its ensuing cosmetic deterioration and pressures from neighbors, the bridge has reportedly been removed from preserved status and offered for sale.  It will be demolished if no buyer appears.

One bridge of national significance, the state-owned 1897 pin-connected multi-span Pratt truss Meadow Bridge in Shelburne, N. H., won a Save America’s Treasures grant in 2005–only the second SAT grant ever made for a historic bridge.  Despite this, Meadow Bridge faces potential demolition.  This threat derives from a NHDOT policy that, if rehabilitated, the bridge must become the property and responsibility of the Town of Shelburne, a community of fewer than 400 people.  Because of this impasse, the Save America’s Treasures grant has lapsed and been forfeited.  The bridge is deteriorating with no action plan for its rehabilitation and interpretation.

This poor record of preservation caused the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance to declare all surviving metal truss bridges, as a group, to be among the state’s most endangered historical resources in 2008.   Despite this designation, such bridges continue to be demolished.  Few if any have been permanently preserved since 2008.

Rumor has it that the number of HBs in the state are dropping rapidly because of policies that encourage replacement over rehabilitation.  Do you agree with this and what are your reason for your argument?

When New Hampshire carried out a federally mandated bridge inventory under STURAA in the 1980s, the state had 92 metal truss bridges, 79 of them in vehicular use. Today, New Hampshire has 63 metal truss highway bridges, a number of them bypassed, abandoned, or in ruinous condition.  The number of such bridges still in service has dwindled to 39—a loss of nearly 50% in two decades.  Some of the 92 bridges of twenty years ago have been bypassed rather than demolished, but their preservation is not guaranteed.  Most of those 92 bridges that are no longer in service have been destroyed.

Federal laws encourage the preservation and continued use of historic bridges, but these laws have proven to be only marginally effective as a preservation tool. The loss of historic bridges is a national phenomenon as well as a New Hampshire crisis.  Despite the pervasive recognition of the significance of these structures, a workshop on historic bridges held in Washington, D. C., in December 2003, came to a dire conclusion:

. . . recent statistics suggest that half, if not more, of our Nation’s historic bridges have been lost in the last twenty years—two decades in which transportation and preservation consciousness was at a high level. This is an alarming and sobering statistic. (Author’s note: this comment was stated by Eric DeLony, historian emeritus of the Historic American Builders Society and the father of historic bridge preservation.)

This “alarming and sobering” nation-wide loss of fifty percent of historic bridges over twenty years is mirrored almost exactly by New Hampshire’s statistics.

Many statements by Congress and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) assert that historic bridges are significant elements of our national heritage and should be preserved.  Yet there is a widespread perception among bridge preservationists that highway engineers, who often lack historical perspective and sympathy for the work of their predecessors, have discovered an effective antidote to the expressed will of Congress.  By  delaying maintenance on such bridges long enough, these structure can often be found, after a decade or so of neglect, to be “beyond rehabilitation,” with “no alternative” but replacement.

Such a scenario unfolded with Memorial Bridge between Portsmouth, N. H. (1923), a vertical lift bridge designed by the eminent engineer J. A. L. Waddell as  the first major bridge of its kind in the eastern United States.  At its dedication, Memorial Bridge had the longest lift span in the country (297 feet), making it the direct prototype for later vertical lift bridges with clear spans of over 300 feet.  Plans for the rehabilitation of this bridge were approved by the New Hampshire and Maine DOTs, the two states’ SHPOs, and the Federal  Highway Administration in 2006.  When rehabilitation bids came in higher than predicted by the DOTs, the bridge was patched and kept in service for a few more years.  Because of its vulnerability, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared Memorial Bridge to be one of the “Eleven Most Endangered” historic properties in the United States in 2009.

Memorial Bridge, a structure of national significance, was ultimately found to be “beyond rehabilitation” and demolished in 2012.  A replacement is now being designed.

Chesterfield- Battlebro Bridge over the Connecticut River. The 1937 steel through arch bridge (right) was replaced by the 2003 version (left) but was left in place. It is one of many success stories of bridges along the border with Vermont. Photo taken by Craig Hanchey

 
How about on the federal level: are you satisfied with the policies pertaining to bridges and historic bridge preservation?  What improvements do you think should be made here?

Commitments to bridge preservation at the federal level are theoretically strong, yet have proven to be ineffectual.

Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 allows the federal Secretary of Transportation to approve a transportation project that requires the “use” of a historic resource only if (1) there if no feasible and prudent alternative to such “use,” and (2) the project includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the historic resource resulting from such “use” (49  U.S.C. 303 §771.135 Section 4(f)).2

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 similarly requires that every federally-funded or -permitted project must avoid doing harm to National Register-eligible resources whenever possible.  If harm cannot be avoided, it must be minimized and/or mitigated.  The public must be invited to participate in the process of planning for preservation.

The directive in the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 to the Federal Highway Administration to work toward bridge preservation was strengthened in 1987 with the passage of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA). This act created a historic bridge program that codified a Congressional finding that it is in the national interest to encourage the rehabilitation, reuse, and preservation of bridges that are significant in American history, architecture, engineering, and culture (23 U.S.C. 144(o)).

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has likewise developed a policy on the rehabilitation of historic bridges for continued vehicular use when possible, noting that

historic bridges are important links in our past, serve as safe and vital transportation routes in the present, and can represent significant resources for the future. . . . Bridges are the single most visible icon of the civil engineer’s art. By demonstrating interest in the rehabilitation and reuse of historic bridges, the civil engineering profession acknowledges concern with these resources and an awareness of the historic built environment.3

Perceiving the gap between these theoretical commitments and the catastrophic losses in the field, the Standing Committee on the Environment of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) entered into an agreement with the National Cooperative Highway Research Program of the Transportation Research Board to produce general guidelines for bridge rehabilitation and replacement, hoping that such protocols might be adopted across the nation. The resulting report, Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement (March 2007), states that:

while the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended) and Section 4(f) of the US Department of Transportation Act of 1966 specify nationally applicable processes for considering preservation or replacement of historic bridges (defined as those that are listed in or have been determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places), there is no corresponding protocol that ensures a nationally consistent approach to determining when rehabilitation is the appropriate decision or when replacement is justified. State and local transportation agencies have developed a wide variety of approaches for managing historic bridges . . . but few of the processes are founded on written protocols or guidelines that ensure balanced decision making that spells out to all stakeholders when rehabilitation is the prudent alternative. (Source: Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement, published by Patrick Harshberger, et. al. in 2007)

Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement is a relatively recent offering that so far is unsupported by any mandate or initiative from AASHTO. As yet, it seems to have had little impact on individual states and certainly has not yet had the anticipated effect of standardizing the treatment and preservation of historic bridges across the nation.

Instead, state and regional highway agencies, intent on building anew instead of preserving, often fail to perform adequate maintenance to ensure the preservation of historic bridges.  When the resulting deterioration reaches a critical stage, agencies commonly ignore the Congressional mandate to engage in all possible planning to avoid harm to historic bridges.  Moving quickly, often with minimal public participation, to a decision that there is no “prudent” alternative to the removal of a bridge, these agencies consistently condemn historic bridges to oblivion.

Despite the laws and studies cited above, this pattern of behavior has been recognized among transportation agencies nationwide.  In some states, two-thirds of metal truss bridges have been lost since 1984. (These comments were made by DeLony and Terry Klein in a literary piece, Historic Bridges: A Heritage at Risk, published in 2004)

All this regulation is threatened by lack of funding for continued maintenance of such bridges.  Lack of funding for preservation leads to a culture of total replacement or removal, for which funding usually has been available.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation offered its “Vision for the Obama Administration” in 2008.  Because of the weaknesses of federal policy in guaranteeing effective bridge preservation, National Trust included four recommendations affecting historic bridges:

Promote the reuse rather than the demolition of historic bridges by removing current obstacles to their repair or relocation;

Include additional [enhanced] historic preservation-based language in the new 2009 Transportation Authorization Bill to encourage the adaptive reuse of the existing transportation infrastructure;

Ensure that Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] are not weakened in the 2009 Transportation Authorization Bill;

Continue to fund Transportation Enhancement [TE] grants, which have been instrumental in aiding the preservation of historic bridges.

In a similar vein, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources drafted a position paper to be conveyed to the Obama transition team in 2008.  This paper attempted to promote bridge preservation as an aspect of stimulus for a deeply damaged economy.  A stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), was ultimately enacted, but it contained no special provisions for historic preservation of any kind.

The position paper of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources outlined the following recommendations for improving or strengthening federal bridge preservation initiatives:

A Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) mandate, with funding, to develop statewide bridge preservation programs;

An FHWA mandate, with funding, to develop a national context for historic bridges;

AASHTO backing for preservation and better maintenance for all bridges, with further studies like Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement (2007);

Congressional appropriation for the preservation of historic metal truss bridges, comparable to the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program, including funding for study, planning, development of a national database of National Register-eligible bridges, and identification of national “best practices” for bridge preservation;

Enhancement of the provisions of Section 4(f) to allow 200% of the estimated cost of demolition (rather than 100%, as at present) to be applied toward the preservation of historic bridges that are bypassed, and to encourage the use of those bridges for alternate transportation uses such as hiking, bicycling, and off-highway recreational vehicles;

Provision of dedicated Transportation Enhancement [TE] funding specifically for historic bridge preservation.

Do you think President Obama has done a good job addressing the issue of infrastructure and the deficiencies involved?  If not, do you think Romney will do better if elected President?

As noted above, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources drafted a position paper to be conveyed to the Obama transition team in 2008.  Whether or not this paper was ever given careful study by that team or the Obama administration, none of its recommendations appear to have been implemented during the past four years, or even to have risen to the level of a national discussion.

Yet it must be said that the Transportation Authorization Bill, wherein most of these recommendations would be implemented, is the province of Congress, not the President.  The subject of bridge preservation is apparently regarded as of little importance by Congress; I know of no preservation leaders who presently serve in the House or Senate.  Given the apparent blindness of Congress to this issue, I do not see that progress in bridge preservation lies within the purview of a President, whether Obama or Romney.  Bridge preservation at the federal level is an issue to be debated in Congress.  A President could influence this issue through impassioned advocacy, but I cannot envision either Obama or Romney making such advocacy a priority in an economic climate in which any preservation effort is likely to be seen as elitist and branded as wasteful of funds that could be “better spent” on other national priorities.

Who do you think will win the election and why?

Political forecasting is outside of my fields of training or experience, but I do not expect the next president to make the preservation of historic bridges a high priority.  I have not heard either Obama or Romney mention historic preservation as an interest of theirs.

The author would like to thank Sheldon Perkins and Craig Hanchey for the use of their photos in the two-part series. These bridges represent clear examples of what improvements that need to be done in New Hampshire.

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