Testimony before Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
August 20, 2002
Executive Director, Preservation Trust of Vermont
It’s a great privilege and pleasure to be here today, especially because Federal and State transportation policy has made great progress in terms of its recognition of the impact our transportation dollars have on the vitality of our communities. This new approach has meant that new voices are included in the decision-making process.
I represent the Preservation Trust of Vermont, one of those new voices. Let me explain a bit about who we are and what we do.
At the beginning of 2000, National Geographic’s Traveler Magazine published a special Millennium issue . . . The World’s 50 Greatest Destinations. It recognized the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall in China, Venice, and the Lake District in England as places of a lifetime . . . special places you wouldn’t want to miss if you had the choice. In North America just nine places were designated . . . and Vermont was one of them.
Living and working in one of the world’s 50 best places is a great thing. We now have the challenge of making sure Vermont is still on the list 50 and 100 years from now. In sum, that’s the work of the Preservation Trust. It’s not about pickling the State. It is about growing and changing in ways that do not undermine the essential character of Vermont, our communities, and our landscape. We’re passionate about building strong downtowns and community centers, and putting our rich collection of historic resources to good use. We appreciate the small-scale nature of Vermont, and understand that mega-sized solutions are often like fingernails scratching a chalkboard. We work collaboratively with community groups, local officials, other statewide organizations, State government, and national organizations like the National Trust for Historic
Before discussing some specific thoughts and suggestions, let me go back to my initial comments.
The enactment of ISTEA in 1991 and TEA-21 in 1998 has encouraged an important transformation within State agencies of transportation nationwide. There has been a broadening of their mission from the important one of building roads for safe and efficient movement of cars and trucks to acknowledging the significant impact that transportation projects have on people and communities. This culture shift was due in no small part to the enhancements program and it is important that the enhancements program be continued and strengthened.
In Vermont, building efficient and safe roads and highways still rightly remains the primary focus of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, but that is now balanced with an acknowledgement of the critical role transportation projects play in defining where we live and work and what the Vermont landscape looks like. Historically communities were built where the roads, navigable rivers or railroads went. And they have declined just as quickly when circumstances changed and that transportation mode or route was bypassed or discontinued. The link between how we build or modify our transportation infrastructure and the economic and social viability of our village centers and downtowns is just as strong today. ISTEA provided the opportunity for us to develop design standards that more closely relate to Vermont ‘s needs and scale. The Enhancement Program has supported community-created projects that have improved our special places for residents and visitors alike. Continued progress in transportation policy and implementation will help us ensure that Vermont is still on the 50 Greatest Destinations list 50 years from now. And, it will help rural places and small communities in every State continue to be the special places they are.
New transportation policy made it possible for us to develop our own design standards which help ensure that highway projects are compatible with their surroundings. The “Vermont State Standards for the Design of Transportation Construction, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation of Freeways, Roads, and Streets” were developed in a partnership process by a committee of government transportation, environmental, and economic representatives and private design professionals. The Standards were adopted and made effective in November 1997.
These State Standards encourage engineers to take more into consideration than just mobility and safety (which are the sole considerations in the AASHTO standards). There is substantial guidance in the Standards on what environmental, historic, and community factors to take into consideration in designing roads and improvements.
The Standards make significant departures from the AASHTO Standards in the recommended design characteristics for all classes of highway without need of a design exception from FHWA. This has freed designers to deal more sensitively with historic buildings and environmentally sensitive areas. The Design Speed for a road may be the Posted Speed so that a road is not required to be designed much “faster” than the legal speed (AASHTO roads are regularly designed 10-20 miles per hour faster than posted speeds, encouraging traffic to greatly exceed posted speeds). Recommended roadway and bridge typicals are reduced for all roadway classes except freeways and principal arterials, allowing roads, shoulders, and clear zones to be smaller on all but the most traveled roads. Roads through Vermont’s rural villages are allowed to be treated with “Urban” treatments, so that rather than dividing a village in two, a highway can be “slower,” more pedestrian friendly, and less disruptive of community life. On the least traveled roads (Collectors and Local Roads) historic bridges can be retained and rehabilitated or similarly scaled replacements built without substantial rebuilding and widening of the roadway and approaches.
Although the new Standards have not eliminated all controversy about highway design, the majority of controversies now are about taking a tree rather than filling a wetland or demolishing a historic building, or are about new demands for environmental protection made since the Standards were adopted, such as increasing buffers near streams from 50’ to 100’.
The transportation enhancements program has been one of ISTEA’s truly outstanding success stories - one that has encouraged communities throughout America to make use of the program’s twelve activities to improve the aesthetics and amenities associated with travel and with highways, and also to build new and better partnerships with State transportation agencies.
We’re eager to have the program reauthorized, essentially in its present form and strengthened. Vermont is one of those States that has done a truly outstanding job of making the most of its transportation enhancements dollars. Vermont has won accolades from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a coveted award of excellence from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Vermont and several other States have particularly excelled in taking advantage of the twelve activities, especially the ones that relate to historic preservation and the revitalization of streetscapes and other transportation aspects of towns and villages. Unfortunately, many States still do not seem to appreciate the enormous good that it is possible to do for historic resources that are related to travel and transportation. I hope that the Environment and Public Works Committee can find ways to encourage these reluctant States to do more preservation work with their enhancement funds and to task the Federal Highway Administration to take steps to bring this about.
Here’s some specific information about the program’s impact in Vermont. First and foremost, you should the fact that enhancements have been VERY popular in VT, both under ISTEA and now TEA-21. Initially all Enhancement funding was used for Bicycle Paths, but beginning in 1995 a selection process of applications from Municipalities and Non-Profits for all eligible categories was instituted. Since then over $23,000,000 has been allocated to 172 local Enhancement projects. Included in this amount, the Vermont Legislature in 1999 mandated that an additional $2,000,000 in Federal funds (beyond the Federally mandated 10% set aside for Enhancements) be awarded to projects, and in 2000 the Legislature mandated that an additional $1,000,000 in wholly State funds be dedicated to such projects.
In Vermont Enhancement funds have been used to construct bike paths and new sidewalks, rehabilitate sidewalks and add pedestrian amenities in historic downtowns, purchase scenic farm easements, rehabilitate historic railroad stations, establish a historic bridge adaptive re-use program, rehabilitate covered bridges, conduct archeological studies, build visitors centers in small villages and at historic sites, plant street trees, erect roadside historic markers, and many other projects.
The program also leverages greater investment by communities and organizations in these types of projects. Enhancement funds require a 20% local match, but match rates overall are about 27%, and this figure does not include other Federal contributions to many of these projects.
Traffic and Trucks on the National Highway system are a big issue for many of our communities that are working hard to revitalize their downtowns and town centers. Expanding truck traffic often adds to the difficult challenges they already face. This is not to say that we do not understand the need to move goods and services about. It’s really about balance. We can’t pit community against community in this debate. One key step Congress can take is to pass H.R. 3132, the Safe Highways and Infrastructure Preservation Act.
This legislation will freeze truck length and weight on the National Highway System, and close loopholes in the law that allow overweight trucks. This is a safety issue, and it’s about maintaining our highway system in a sound fiscal way. In rural places like Vermont, we can’t afford to rebuild our existing system to accommodate larger and larger, and heavier and heavier trucks.
Vermont, like the rest of this country, has been struggling to minimize sprawl development that undermines the strength and vitality of our downtowns and community centers. Where sprawl has occurred, we need to address the impacts of sprawl development attracted to interstate exits. We have classic examples occurring outside the Burlington area; Williston and Colchester are two examples, where traffic regularly backs up on the interstate at those exits. In order to protect the integrity of the interstate transportation corridor, Vermont has been implementing a unique interstate interchange program and policy to both assist towns with resources to manage the growth attracted there (such as through access permits, design guidelines and local zoning techniques) but also to gain scenic or conservation easements on key parcels where development will be problematic.
The Enhancements Programs need to be an important source of funding to achieve the goals of this interchange program, but there are impediments in applying the funds for the acquisition of easements which make it virtually unworkable. For example: Prior to making application to the program, we are permitted only to negotiate an option to purchase at a value contingent on a State transportation agency-approved appraisal. We cannot negotiate a purchase price or conduct the appraisal prior to making application, but must wait until being awarded the Enhancements grant. This creates an awkward “Catch 22” in the middle of high stakes real estate negotiation, with high values and highly experienced land investors. I hope you will consider providing a new approach in the reauthorization bill.
I wish to close by urging you to strongly oppose any proposal to weaken the invaluable protections that section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 provides. Section 4(f) protects historic sites from harmful road projects unless there is no prudent and feasible way to avoid the harm. Despite what you might hear from opponents of section 4(f), it works well in many States and has plenty of flexibility. The notion that historic preservation reviews of proposed road projects are major causes of delay is ludicrous. The Federal Highway Administration can take responsibility for a fair, unbiased and thorough review of the workings of historic preservation reviews, and all of the other environmental reviews as well. in an open and inclusive forum with a view toward discovering a consensus approach. Historic preservationists are dead set against going back to the days before section 4(f) when the twin terrors of unbridled urban renewal and road construction combined to destroy so much of the country’s historic resources, especially in America’s cities.
The Federal Highway Administration’s Historic Bridge Program (Section 144(o)) has been on the books since 1987 and is greatly in need of revision and strengthening. First, the provision requiring States to do inventories of their historic bridges should also require that workable management plans for saving those bridges be adopted as well. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is estimating that half, perhaps more, of the inventoried historic bridges in America have already been destroyed. Regular maintenance can extend the useful life of many historic bridges and continue them in vehicular service, and flexibility with respect to weight, width and other geometric features can help as well, without any compromises with safety.
I’d like to suggest two other specific ideas for the Historic Bridge Program. One, make retired historic bridges more readily available for pedestrians, hikers and bicyclists by doubling the estimated demolition costs that States can now contribute to new owners of these bridges and make it clear that the new owners may always be able to apply for transportation enhancements support. Two, I suggest that the Environment and Public Works Committee build on the popularity and success of the Jeffords’ Historic Covered Bridge Program by creating a well-funded research and demonstration effort to find ways to save more of the nation’s historic metal truss bridges that are being lost at an alarming rate.
One final subject I would like to mention is the development of passenger rail in Vermont. I serve on the Vermont Transportation Authority which increasing has a role in building a passenger rail system. We believe that 25 to 50 years from now, Vermonters are going to need and want a cost-efficient and usable passenger rail system. Without such a system, we will be faced with too much highway congestion from the driver’s perspective, and communities that are overwhelmed by too many trucks and cars. Building passenger rail will be a long process with many small steps, and we will need your support as we go along. We hope it will be a good partnership.
Thanks very much for providing me with this opportunity to be with you today.