Preservationists and road construction groups debate over provision

Preservationists and road construction groups are at a high-tension standstill on Capitol Hill. As part of the negotiations over the $375 billion TEA-21 reauthorization, a provision could be changed to speed up the road construction process.

What’s the problem? The provision under debate, section 4(f), was originally part of a 1966 transportation law that protected historic sites. Under the provision, it is illegal for federal highway projects to destroy any historic site or public park if there is a “prudent and feasible alternative,” and requires “all possible planning to minimize harm” to the sites. The rule often results in a drawn out process of reviews and analysis, which can last anywhere from months to several years. According to the Federal High Administration, section 4(f) is responsible for 6 percent of all transportation project delays.

The Bush Administration supports protecting historical sites, but wants to revise the provision so that it does not slow down transportation projects. Under the proposed changes, transportation officials would have to conduct a review process under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act if they plan to build on a historical site.

According to Matt Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the changes will speed up the construction of roads and reduce unnecessary project costs.

“Section 4(f) has become a major source of unnecessary paperwork and delay. It often distorts transportation project decisions in ways that unnecessarily drive up project costs an/or even deprive the public of needed and environmentally sound transportation facilities,” as stated in an ARTBA policy statement.

Preservationists, on the other hand, consider section 4(f) the strongest preservation law and fear that if changes are made, it will allow federal contractors to bulldoze over parks and landmarks.

“Historical assets are worth paying attention to, and 4(f) forces everyone to pay attention,” Kevin McCarty, senior director of federal policy for the Surface Transportation Policy Project told Forbes Magazine.

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In the most recent action on section 4(f) the preservationists took a temporary victory when the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee chose to keep the provision intact last week. But both construction lobbyists and preservationists expect that permanent amendments affecting the provision will occur when the Senate takes up the TEA-21 reauthorization issue in early spring 2004.