Historic site rule may slow some stimulus projects

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 8, 2010 

WASHINGTON — A routine federal requirement that's intended to preserve historic sites threatens to delay some economic stimulus projects around the country.

Federally funded projects that could affect sites with historic value are required to undergo reviews that consider ways to minimize disturbance of the sites. Projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are no different.

In some cases, that's meant delays in getting crucial stimulus projects out the door, and therefore in pumping stimulus dollars into the economy.

So far, there've been only scattered delays, but the state and tribal offices that conduct the reviews say they're concerned they won't have enough resources to keep pace with all the reviews that will be needed in the next round of projects.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Amtrak had planned a $30 million stimulus-funded project to replace 24 miles of electric transmission lines along an abandoned rail route. Although the trains are long gone, the transmission lines are still in use.

The project was projected to create 250 full-time equivalent positions, and the stimulus dollars must be spent by February 2011. Nationwide, Amtrak was awarded $1.3 billion for a total of 205 capital improvement projects.

Before ground can be broken, however, the project must undergo a historical review, which involves consultation with counties, townships and Indian tribes along the old railroad route, as well as the state historic preservation office. That began last September, and the project still hasn't received final approval.

Susan Zacher, a supervisor with Pennsylvania's historic preservation office, said in June that she expected an agreement to be signed soon that would lay out the measures Amtrak would take to preserve the railway's history. Mostly, that means building kiosks with historical information along the route.

In the meantime, construction hasn't begun, and the stimulus funding for the project has been downsized to $1.5 million, Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said.

Historic review frequently has been time-consuming. What's different now is that state and tribal reviewers say the influx of stimulus-funded projects is increasing their work load while the budgets to carry out that work are flat or declining.

In March 2009, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers told Congress that at least 13 state historic preservation offices had undergone staffing cuts and 30 were in the midst of hiring freezes. As for tribal historic preservation offices, the average federal dollars allocated to each tribe have decreased in the past year as new tribal preservation offices have been instituted, according to the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.

While the White House and Congress were hammering out the stimulus bill last year, advocacy groups pushed for $50 million to assist historic preservation offices. It didn't make it into the final legislation, however.

In a Government Accountability Office report in February, officials at the Departments of Commerce and Transportation said the historic review process had affected the selection and timing of projects.

Out of the 16 states surveyed, one — California — told the GAO that historic reviews already had caused delays in getting projects out the door, and six other states said the reviews might cause delays.

In California, furloughs in the state historic preservation office led to months-long backlogs in hundreds of stimulus projects, from the construction of clinics to highway projects. After the state inspector general for stimulus projects highlighted the issue, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office put more people in the state historic preservation office and the backlogs disappeared, said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for the California State Parks, which runs the preservation office.

Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York state and Texas told the GAO that historic review requirements could slow their stimulus projects. In more recent interviews, however, these states said they'd found ways to avoid delays, either by streamlining the historic review or — in the case of New York — by choosing not to use recovery act money for certain types of projects.

Projects on tribal lands also could face delays.

Robert Cast supervises a three-person office that reviews every project that might affect burial sites or artifacts from the Caddo Nation, a Native American tribe of about 5,000 headquartered in Oklahoma but with historic lands that span four states.

Cast said it had been hard to keep up with the increasing number of calls and e-mails that were coming into his office since the stimulus bill passed last year. He's particularly concerned about a broadband project to lay fiber optic cable across swaths of rural Oklahoma that could affect multiple historic tribal sites.

Jessica Schafer, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said the agency was working to ensure that reviews of its stimulus-funded broadband initiatives proceeded in a timely fashion.

However, Adrian Fine, the state and local policy director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said it was possible that things might get more complicated, not less.

Fine said that while many early stimulus projects already had gone through historic review, those in a second wave of stimulus money hadn't yet.

"It's becoming more and more of a challenge in getting the reviews through in an expedited fashion," he said.

(Sewell is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.)

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