Hello Friends, Now I don’t often talk politics here (because, quite frankly, I’m not a fan) but today I’m going to talk a bit about them, but I promise I’ll try to make it non-partisan (unless you are against Preservation, in which case, I wonder why you’re here). Today I’m going to discuss Streamlining, and before you get all excited, I don’t mean this kind:
I mean the streamlining of Federally-mandated environmental review processes and a new bill proposal before the 112th session of the House of Representatives (HR 1584 to be exact) which will essentially undermine Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. For anyone not familiar with the inner workings of Section 106, the regulation states that (huge simplification alert): Any project receiving Federal Licensing, Funding, Permits or Approvals, has to take into account historic resources, and if a project is found to adversely effect an historic resource then the project proponent (in lay terms: the people undertaking the project) must make an attempt to avoid, minimize or mitigate the Adverse Effect. The point of Section 106 is merely to take historic resources into account. It doesn’t say in any way that if an historic resource is in the project area, then the project must be abandoned. It just says that we need to consider them in the project planning process. This is friendly legislation, my friends. (We can get into a debate about whether 106 should have more “teeth” at another time)
Now, for the “streamlining.” This is an excerpt that gets to the crux of the issue: “Exemption of Maintenance Activities From Certain Analysis Requirements- In maintaining the Federal-aid system to include construction occurring within existing rights-of-way previously acquired and reserved for transportation purposes pursuant to this section, a State department of transportation shall not be required to secure any permit or conduct any analysis under Federal law (including any permit, review, analysis, clearance, or impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq.), the Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C. 7401 et seq.), the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), or the National Historic Preservation Act (16 U.S.C. 470 et seq.)).” (Yes, I recognize that there are four other environmental laws in there along with the National Historic Preservation Act, but Preservation is my immediate concern, though I do admit that clean water, clean air, endangered species protection and overall environmental protection are very important, as well!!)
As for the reasons why I think this would be a bad idea, first off, there are these things called Programmatic Agreements. They are handy little arrangements between State and Federal agencies that help to streamline review processes, in a way that nobody (in this case meaning historic resources) gets hurt. They do this because all the parties involved AGREE on a procedure to follow and on “short-cuts” that can be taken, by laying out in advance when certain things don’t need to be reviewed (i.e. routine maintenance and the like). Programmatic Agreements are something that has already been laid out in several of the environmental laws, and they have gone a long way toward speeding things up and getting State and Federal projects built. Yet, this bill would say to State DOTs, “Well, since you’ve already built a highway here, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) gave you money to do it, you don’t REALLY need to stop and think before you do any more work. Have fun!” To me this is the equivalent of saying to a blindfolded person driving a bulldozer through Manhattan, who’s been lucky enough to avoid running anyone down, “Keep going! You haven’t killed anyone yet, so you should be fine!” Seems like a bad strategy (or lack of a strategy… and that’s all Section 106 offers us… a planning strategy).
Second, the bill is ridiculously vague on certain things. But that’s really a big problem, as it’s unclear what exactly is meant by the “Federal-aid system”, and whether it only encompasses State and Interstate highways, or if it extends to local connector roads that a State DOT would consider to be included in the Federal-aid highway system (in case you were wondering, the Federal-aid system typically refers either to the mechanism by which the FHWA funds State road construction, or the roads that are built with that money). Also, it isn’t clear whether the intent is to exempt only those roads laid out and constructed entirely with Federal-aid funding (from the FHWA), or if it includes any road that has ever involved Federal-aid money in its maintenance in the past. Plus, an obvious danger lies in exempting ANY activities that take place within the existing ROW. There are elements of historic properties that fall within the ROW on many roads, like stone walls, fences, steps and other things that were grandfathered during the twentieth century, not to mention historic mile markers, hitching posts, monuments, historic flagstone or brick sidewalks, and any number of other objects associated with a road. Since they’re within the ROW, they could be removed without any review whatsoever. And what does this say for historic bridges? They’re located within the ROW, and their replacement would thereby be exempted from Section 106. And how about historic parkways? They could be widened, their guardrails replaced insensitively, their trees and plantings clear-cut, their bridges widened insensitively or replaced wholesale, their interchanges altered, their curbing replaced with asphalt or whatever else… I can hear the cries of “Keep it in the Right-of-Way” now. After all, that’s what happened with Section 4(f). (…but that’s another discussion)
Let’s take a look at what it would do to the Preservation field, professionally. It would essentially put hundreds of thousands of people out of their jobs at State DOTs and consultant firms and resource agencies, as it would nullify any need for many of the environmental reviews and permits that are currently required. Then, look at the number of people in your state who work for State and Federal agencies like Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, State Historic Preservation Offices, the Department of Environmental Protection, FHWA, and other state and federal resource agencies. How many peoples’ jobs wouldn’t be needed anymore? Multiply that by 50. Hundreds of millions (maybe even several billion) of dollars saved, thanks to tens of thousands of unemployed people, and who knows how many historic resources, wetlands, endangered species and habitats irreparably damaged. This is just bad math, that will result in not only the loss of irreplaceable historic resources (they aren’t made of Legos people! You can’t just rebuild historic integrity and cultural significance), but will also result in a crushing blow to an under-recognized but no-less important field.
So, IMHO, HR 1854 is a BAD idea. Section 106 keeps preservationists working (and likewise for many other resource specialists in their respective fields, helping to protect other environmental resources) and it has been helping to make sure we don’t forget to take it into account our country’s built heritage since 1966. Let’s not hamstring our most powerful planning strategy to save a few bucks. And if one of your State’s Representatives is on the Transportation Committee (Heck, even if they aren’t) advocate for Preservation and the environment by letting them know that HR 1854 shouldn’t pass!
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