Testimony submitted by Emily Wadhams
Vermont State Historic Preservation Officer
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
“Project Delivery and Environmental Stewardship”
September 19, 2002
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to provide testimony today on the approach Vermont has taken to expedite historic preservation reviews of transportation projects. My name is Emily Wadhams. I am the Vermont State Historic Preservation Officer. I am also on the Board of Directors of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers and am an Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Although I am not speaking on behalf of these national organizations, I have been working closely with them on the issues I’ll be addressing this morning.
I appreciate the opportunity to testify today and especially want to thank Senator Jeffords for the invitation. We in Vermont have long looked to Senator Jeffords as a leader in historic preservation. History is important to Vermonters, and Senator Jeffords has done a lot to help the citizens of Vermont preserve our state as a special place. He has recognized and supported the importance of landmarks like covered bridges and barns with national legislation that helps preserve these icons for all Americans. And he has championed our small towns and villages with his leadership on postal service policy that keeps post offices active as vital community centers.
In Vermont, my office collaborated with state and federal transportation officials to improve the way we review the impacts of transportation projects on historic and archeological resources. In brief, we developed an agreement known officially as a Programmatic Agreement, or PA, that creates an alternative review process for transportation projects under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Although Section 106 regulations encourage programmatic agreements, Vermont is the only state to have developed such a comprehensive document. Under the agreement, the State Historic Preservation Officer has delegated the review and sign-off authority to qualified historic preservation professionals within the Vermont Agency of Transportation for all state and federal transportation undertakings. After almost two years of experience with the PA, I can report that the success of this approach has far exceeded our expectations.
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the effects of their undertakings on historic and archeological resources. In Vermont, as in other states, transportation safety and efficiency goals have often collided with historic preservation goals, sometimes delaying projects, and pitting state DOT’s against State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) in battles over the preservation of cultural resources. Mistrust among the parties to the process was common, and it often turned into a ‘blame game’ of whose fault it was that projects were being delayed. In the end both sides lost – project schedules lengthened, costs increased, and cultural resources were destroyed. Vermont, like most states, was mired in the problem. We were hearing from communities that they were not being heard and that changes were being made in the name of improving roads that were ruining the character of their towns.
Vermonters believe that it is possible to change things for the better, that if you bring together the right people and talk about a problem, you can fix it. In the mid 1990’s, Vermont started talking about how to solve the Section 106 review problem for transportation projects. Many of the most pressing –and adversarial - projects involved historic metal truss bridge replacements, and so we focused first on a survey of these bridges – which ones were most important, which ones were good candidates for preservation, which ones had to be removed, and was it feasible to reuse some elsewhere? The Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Vermont State Historic Preservation Office both committed time and money to answer the questions and produced a consensus bridge plan, formalized into a programmatic agreement for bridges. Although many bridges have been saved in place and continue to serve vehicular traffic, AOT developed a Historic Bridge Program to relocate and restore important bridges. In Hinesburg, Vermont, a small pony truss has been reused to cross a stream on a heavily used community pedestrian and bike path. In Arlington, a bypassed metal truss bridge next to a fishing access on the famed Battenkill trout stream became a fishing platform accessible for people with disabilities.
Another collaborative effort also occurred at the same time. This was the development of the Vermont Design Standards (1996) and a new community review process designed to create more flexibility and creativity in designing transportation projects and to increase community input early in the planning process. One of the first beneficiaries of the new Standards was the town of Underhill where citizens fought for and won a “footprint” replacement bridge, a bridge that matched the dimensions of the old bridge as well as the small scale of the community. The success of these efforts led to broader discussions about how to streamline all Section 106 reviews and better protect cultural resources in transportation planning.
These projects changed our relationship with the Agency of Transportation. We began working on the premise that we shared the same two goals - to improve the review process to allow AOT to do it’s job, and to be good stewards of the state’s historic resources. The trust that evolved led to the creation of a general Programmatic Agreement, or PA, that emerged in 2000. The PA delegates Section 106 sign-off authority to the Agency of Transportation itself, for its own projects, a radical concept. The PA relies on qualified historic preservation professionals within AOT to ensure appropriate consideration of historic and archeological resources in transportation project planning. AOT now files a final comment with the SHPO, and there is a specified timeframe for the SHPO to ask questions or disagree. AOT and SHPO staff worked together to create the PA Manual that clarified or developed procedures and other guidance to define how resources should be evaluated and treated in the Section 106 process. That effort allowed us to discuss, debate, and agree on exactly how the Section 106 process would work under the PA, which set the overall tone of the process, but did not provide details. The first annual evaluation of the PA process proclaimed it a resounding success. Thirty other states have requested copies so that they may consider it for their jurisdictions.
Preservationists have long thought that consideration of historic and archeological resources early in project planning could eliminate many potential adverse effects on those resources in transportation projects. The PA promotes early consideration by sanctioning AOT historic preservation staff to actively and authoritatively participate in that early planning to avoid adverse effects. Formerly, when preservation issues came up late in the project planning process, it was often difficult and expensive to redesign to avoid adverse effects, and resources were lost.
The PA has reduced delays in the review process dramatically. AOT estimates that review of routine projects has been shortened by weeks, and complex projects, by months or more. The PA exempts from review a long list of activities with little potential to affect historic and archeological resources. The time-consuming exchange of memos, telephone calls and frequent meetings have been eliminated between the SHPO and AOT staff.
The PA Manual prescribes opportunities for broad public involvement and comment on the issues covered by Section 106, piggybacked on the Agency’s existing public process. The Manual requires that the Agency reach out to certain interested constituencies and inform them about their opportunity to comment, thereby enhancing the public’s ability to understand and comment on affected historic and archeological resources. The PA also stresses public education about historic and archeological resources, both as projects occur and as mitigation.
The PA also called for interagency cooperation on other innovative non-regulatory projects, and several are currently underway which will benefit Vermonters: AOT now co-sponsors our annual state-wide historic preservation conference and Vermont Archeology Month; it is working with us to develop a database of historic resources, refine a GIS-based predictive model for archeological sites; and is considering helping us update our long-neglected state survey of historic sites. And I’ll throw in a plug for more capacity for state historic preservation offices here. The appropriation to Department of Interior’s Historic Preservation Fund, which provides federal funding to state historic preservation offices to do all the things we are mandated to do under federal law, - survey work, regulatory reviews, historic tax credit reviews, provide technical assistance, and so on - has seen only minor increases in the last 30 years. In Vermont, we have not been able to invest in the infrastructure – good database, historic sites surveys and GIS mapping - to allow information about historic resources to be integrated into state, local and federal planning processes. Any way that the Historic Preservation Fund can be increased or enhancement dollars earmarked to assist us with this process would greatly improve our ability to be better stewards of these resources while improving the historic preservation offices’ regulatory review process.
The key to success of the Vermont Programmatic Agreement has been a willingness on AOT’s part to take its mandated responsibility towards historic preservation seriously. In the past, it was too easy for AOT to say the state historic preservation office was “making them” do something. With the new process, historic preservation concerns are more naturally integrated into the agency’s thinking in the earliest stages of project development, not as an afterthought or a burden. In addition, the Agency of Transportation has now begun to develop projects, like a new railroad depot initiative to rehabilitate the state-owned railroad depots that probably wouldn’t have happened without this new integration of historic resource protection into their day-to-day activities.
Without the enactment of ISTEA and TEA-21 – the enhancement programs that began in 1991, I’m not sure we would be where we are today. Congress made a clear statement with the enhancements program that built upon on the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. It said that ‘yes’ in 1966 we were serious about making sure that federally funded highway projects and other federal undertakings couldn’t ignore the impacts of interstate highways and other transportation projects on our nation’s historic resources. Now, with the enhancements program, Congress has also made a commitment to those “activities that enhance community benefits of transportation investments”. Enhancements are engines of change and natural partnership builders. They enhance the natural and built environments through which roads pass. Vermont’s Agency of Transportation’s major responsibility is to repair and builds roads and bridges for safe and efficient travel. But it also takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. AASHTO honored the Vermont enhancements program as one of the four best in America in a 2000 competition.
We have come a long way towards recognizing the importance of stewardship. We still need better policies to address important issues like limiting truck length and weight on the National Highway System roads, changing federal funding policy to encourage, not discourage retention of historic bridges, and provide funding that will allow for the retention of unpaved scenic roads, for example. Also badly needed are changes to the enhancements program that remove serious impediments in applying for scenic easement acquisitions. Vermont is making a major effort to gain scenic or conservation easements at interstate exits to help communities address growth and traffic concerns. The current program, which will not allow for an appraisal or negotiated purchase price until after the enhancements grant has been awarded, make this almost impossible.
In Vermont our “new and improved” approach to regulatory reviews is working. I believe it works because we have a citizenry that values the resources we strive to protect, we have legislators in Washington who recognize the importance of protecting these resources for future generations of Vermonters, we have a governor who has worked hard to protect our downtowns, village centers and scenic landscapes, we have supportive leadership within our Agency of Transportation, and we have a Federal Highway Administration staff that has been a strong partner in these efforts. Our mutual goal has been to address issues of safety and efficiency in a modern transportation system in a way that enhances and does not compromise the special characteristics of the state we love.
I strongly believe that the approach we’re taken in Vermont to improve the regulatory process can also work with the protections established in Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act. 4(f) prohibits the use of historic sites and public lands unless there is no prudent and feasible alternative. It is viewed by some as being rigid and cumbersome and sometimes results in solutions that don’t make sense especially with smaller projects. In Vermont, 4(f) is rarely a problem, because AOT’s historic preservation staff flags adverse effects very early on in the planning process and can work to either avoid the adverse effect or go through the required alternatives analysis early on. I think almost everyone who works with 4(f) agrees that improvements to the process could be made. But changing the statute would be drastic and unnecessary and open the door to weakening the protections created by the law. The success of the Vermont example to expedite reviews under Section 106 can be applied to improving the 4(f) process. As we learned with our project, willing partners committed to making the process work effectively, can devise a regulatory or procedural solution to address the problem. In Vermont, I believe we have shown that with a collaborative approach, everyone wins – projects get built, resources get protected and the public is better served.
1.) Manual of Standards and Guidelines, in accordance with the Programmatic Agreement among the VAOT, FHWA, ACHP, VSHPO regarding the Implementation of the Federal-Aid Highway Program in Vermont (12/28/0). Manual includes the Programmatic Agreement as Appendix A.
2.) Better Historic Preservation Reviews for Road Projects, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2002.