Fighting the Good Fight: An Update on Transportation Reauthorization

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“Unpredictable” might be the word I’d use to describe work on transportation reauthorization over the last several months. The process thus far has all the makings of a TV reality series, and unfortunately the drama is all too real.

For those unfamiliar with it, the transportation bill is reauthorized every six years (or so) and contains a number of items of interest for historic preservation and downtown revitalization. These interests range from byways to bridges and are too many to mention so I usually simplify by lumping them under “programs and protections.”

A key program of interest is Transportation Enhancements (TE), which was established more 20 years ago and funds community-based projects that enhance the transportation experience by improving the cultural, historic, aesthetic, and environmental aspects of our transportation infrastructure. Half of the 12 eligible program categories are related to historic preservation, and TE is the largest source of federal funding for historic preservation.

As far as protections, Section 4(f) is the strongest federal preservation law on the books and 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.

Given that the largest source of federal funding and the strongest federal preservation law are involved, we have a LOT at stake in this process. The current transportation policy, SAFETEA-LU actually expired in the fall of 2009. Since then, Congress has enacted a series of short-term extensions because there were big political hurdles to address in any upcoming reauthorization.

Action on reauthorization began to pick up several months ago, and has been a whirlwind of activity ever since. I’m not exaggerating when I say that status of the legislation changes daily, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been right there rolling with the changes, from 18-hour markups that last until the middle of the night to Sunday morning conference calls tweaking amendment language.

Along the way we’ve had small victories. During the House committee mark-up, Representative Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri) raised preservation concerns in the draft bill which allowed us to work with staff on suggested changes to harmful provisions, ultimately leading to resolution on a railroad exemption issue. In the Senate, preservation advocates were instrumental in helping to support the Cardin/Cochran amendment which provided more favorable language to a threatened TE program. And, we’ve been working more closely and in step with national partners, internal networks, and allied groups who all care deeply about these issues.

Unfortunately, the drama isn’t over and we are faced with new challenges at each step. Last week, the House passed another extension, but instead of being a “clean” measure, the bill contained amendments with harmful environmental “streamlining” language that has direct and dire consequences for preservation review, including Section 4(f).

So now we must brace ourselves for a full-fledged effort to retain preservation protections as the House and Senate move forward in conference committee. In keeping with the “unpredictable” trend, we are unsure of timing and details, only that this will be the most important challenge we face in the near future.

For more information on transportation and livable communities, click here.

For more information about the Transportation Enhancement Act, Transportation Enhancements Act, visit the Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse describes the basics of the act as well as state-specific information and examples of TE projects, including many Main Street communities. Here are a few: