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Successes in Stewardship
Monthly Newsletter
May 2005

The Interstate Highway System Section 106 Exemption: Maintaining a Unique Resource

Western Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Supporting Interstate 80 is a National Historic Landmark.  The bridge will still be subject to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, under the new Historic Preservation Exemption for the Interstate Highway System.

Western Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Supporting Interstate 80 is a National Historic Landmark. The bridge will still be subject to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, under the new Historic Preservation Exemption for the Interstate Highway System.

Ensuring the Continued Vitality of the Interstate Highway System

For nearly 50 years, the Interstate Highway System has enhanced mobility and economic development across the country. Yet, last year, for many State and Federal transportation professionals, the approaching 50th anniversary of the Interstate System was cause for concern rather than celebration. The increasing recognition of its historic significance raised the possibility that the Interstate System was potentially eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (National Register). Because Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires that Federal agencies assess impacts to eligible sites, even basic maintenance and improvements to any element of the Interstate System could have created enormous administrative compliance burdens. Without the exemption, future work to ensure safety and improve travel might have been delayed.

Accordingly, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) worked with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to address the concerns of Federal and State stakeholders. The resulting administrative exemption, the Historic Preservation Exemption for the Interstate Highway System (The Exemption), became effective on March 10, 2005. While the Exemption excludes the majority of the 46,700-mile system from Section 106, elements of the Interstate System that do meet certain National Register criteria must still be considered through the normal historic preservation review process.

The Exemption Upholds NHPA Goals and Supports Streamlining Principles

Ironically, highway construction and urban renewal projects from the late 1950s and 1960s were major factors in the creation of the NHPA. Early highway construction was often conducted without the current practices of assessing and avoiding impacts to historic and other resources. In response, Congress passed the NHPA. Over the years, transportation professionals and historic-preservation officials alike have recognized that many historic sites, including roads, were subject to consideration under Section 106 of the NHPA, which protects sites and properties with the following attributes:

  • Associated with significant historic events or patterns of history,
  • Connected to lives of historically significant persons,
  • Possessing information important to understanding our nation's past, and
  • Exemplifying characteristics of a period, distinctive design, or particular method of construction.

Given its vast scale and vital role in commercial and personal mobility, the Interstate System is a unique resource of historic importance. Although some of the attributes listed above could apply to the Interstate System in its entirety, the nature of this national web of highways has been to continually evolve to meet changing transportation needs. The ACHP acknowledged the exceptional nature of the Interstate System and adopted the Exemption. The Exemption - by releasing Federal agencies from the requirement to assess and address potential impacts on the vast majority of the Interstate System - reduces administrative burdens, while enabling construction, expansion, and upgrading of the Interstate System to best serve the public. While the Exemption is unprecedented, it is consistent with NHPA goals to adopt measures that promote historic preservation in harmony with social and economic requirements of present and future generations.

Historically Significant Features are Excluded from the Exemption

The Exemption does not apply to certain historically important, distinctive features of the system. Certain elements of the Interstate System, such as bridges, tunnels, and rest stops, may be excluded from the provisions of the Exemption when designated by FHWA. The Exemption sets forth the criteria by which FHWA shall identify these elements in consultation with stakeholders in each State. Centralized application of these criteria, consistent with the guidance for the National Register, will ensure national consistency in the interpretation of exclusion criteria. FHWA at the headquarters level, working with stakeholders at the State and local levels, will designate these elements prior to the 50th Anniversary of the Interstate System in June 2006. All identified elements will continue to be subject to the requirements of Section 106.

A logo for the Eisenhower Interstate System

Happy Birthday
Interstate System!

Heralded as one of the great public works, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is almost 50 years old. Early notions of creating a web of national roads started with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stories suggest that he sketched a map with three highway lines running north and south and three running east and west across the length of the continental United States. The Federal Highway Act of 1938 mandated a feasibility study on the construction of an interstate system. Further progress was halted first by national mobilization efforts for World War II, and then by disagreements between the States and Congress over how Federal money should be spent on roads.

On June 29, 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorizing $25 billion towards the creation of more than 40,000 miles of road connecting every state in the lower 48. Some aspects of the bill:

  • Planned for dual purposes: promoting commerce and enhancing national security with better troop mobility and faster civilian emergency evacuation
  • Intended to be fully built in 10 years
  • Designed to meet travel demand in 1975 (later amended to 20 years in the future)

The massive infrastructure effort was substantially completed in 1991 at a cost of $114 billion dollars.

Criteria for identifying elements of the Interstate System that will continue to require Section 106 review include the following:

  • At least 50 years old and meet the National Register criteria for national significance
  • Less than 50 years old and meet the National Register criteria for exceptional significance
  • Listed in the National Register or have been determined eligible by the Keeper of the Register
  • Were constructed prior to 1956, were incorporated into the Interstate System, and meet the National Register criteria for State or local significance

It is important to note that the Exemption does not excuse Interstate Highway projects from taking into account the effects of their actions on properties other than elements of the Interstate Highway System. Points that still must be considered:

  • Archeological sites that might be affected by ground-disturbing activities must still be identified and considered.
  • Existing programmatic agreements are superceded.
  • Engineering and design aesthetics are potentially eligible for Section 106 consideration.
  • Tribal Lands are not included in the Exemption.
  • Exemption of the Interstate System from provisions of Section 4(f) is expected to be addressed under reauthorization legislation.

Next Steps

FHWA is scheduling facilitated meetings in each State to discuss elements of the Interstate System that should be excluded from the Exemption. The discussions will involve State Historic Preservation Officers, State DOTs, and FHWA Division Offices. Since most States have already begun to consider exceptional and nationally significant resources along their highways, the meetings should develop the necessary information for comprehensive identification of sites. Once lists are developed for each State, the public will be given the opportunity to suggest additional sites. FHWA is confident that it will successfully meet the June 30, 2006 deadline for designating exclusions. In the meantime, Federal agencies may assume that the Interstate System is exempt from consideration as a historic property, except for those elements likely to meet the criteria for exclusion from the Exemption. To view the Exemption published in the Federal Register, click on the following link: Exemption Regarding Historic Preservation Review Process for Effects to the Interstate Highway System.

Contact Information

MaryAnn Naber
Federal Highway Administration
400 Seventh Street, SW
Room 3222
Washington, DC 20590
Phone: (202) 366-2060
Maryann.Naber@fhwa.dot.gov

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