Section 4(f)

"Section 4(f)" doesn't sound important -- but it is the strongest federal preservation law on the books, and its loss would be a devastating blow to efforts to protect America's heritage.

Part of the Department of Transportation Act adopted by Congress in 1966, Section 4(f) states that transportation projects must avoid historic sites unless there is "no feasible and prudent alternative" and requires "all possible planning to minimize harm" to historic places. This unequivocal "hands-off" directive has been invoked hundreds of times over the past 35 years to keep the nation's heritage from being bulldozed and blacktopped.

Most Recent Developments

After nearly three years of extensions and negotiations, Congress finally reauthorized transportation programs on June 29, 2012. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and other preservation advocates have long been engaged in transportation advocacy efforts. As the conference moved to resolution, the National Trust was intensely focused on striking two provisions from the House passed bill: section 607, which would have eviscerated the strongest federal preservation law, Section 4(f) of the Transportation Act, and section 610, which would have for the first time permitted the disposal of historic properties without going through the traditional preservation review process.

Along with those two provisions, there were several others that would have been harmful to the preservation community including section 615, a proposal for the substitution of state law for federal reviews. In the end, both section 607 and 610 were dropped from the final bill and section 615 was significantly changed to require a study of state processes to determine where duplication may be eliminated, rather than an automatic substitution.

Unfortunately, while the preservation community was successful with several of its legislative objectives, the final bill included many unfavorable provisions. Notably, the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program has been substantially changed. Although historic preservation projects remain an eligible activity for funding, there are major changes that will transform the program. To begin with, TE will no longer exist as a separate program, but is instead part of a consolidated program called ‘Transportation Alternatives.’ Additionally, Transportation Alternatives will be competing with other programs for a smaller source of funding.

Along with the changes to TE, a set of other harmful “streamlining” provisions survived, including: allowing for categorical exclusions of projects located in an existing right of way, exemption of environmental review for advanced acquisition of property on anticipated transportation projects, and certain exclusions for environmental review during emergencies and natural disasters.

In short, the final bill reauthorizes transportation programs for 27 months at the cost of $120 billion and includes dramatic restructuring of transportation programs and processes. Preservation advocates’ efforts to protect historic preservation in transportation policy is far from over. The short 27-month authorization of the new measure necessitates a multi-year effort to ensure Section 4(f) and other preservation programs survive the next reauthorization.

Moving forward, a critical priority for the National Trust will be to work with national, state and local preservationists to illustrate how Section 4(f) has improved transportation planning, promoted economic development, and protected historic resources of great significance to local communities. In addition, the preservation community will need to identify the best ways to implement the newly authorized Transportation Alternatives and other programs.