I Wear a Hard Hat

I love the regulatory world. I love preservation law. If you’ve known me since college and even while I worked at Fort Bragg, you may have just fallen off your chair. I apologize (Michelle M, ahem). For years I thought Section 106 project review would be the most boring job in the world. I have asked people to to remind me that I would never want such a job. However, I made these bold statements before studying preservation law and before studying the case of the Lake Champlain Bridge. And of course, before my summer internship with the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

My internship (and now job) includes two main parts: historic preservation monitor for the Lake Champlain Bridge project and project review for compliance with preservation laws. The preservation laws that I’m referring to are the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966. The brief reason for the existence of my historic preservation specialist and monitor job (with technical preservation law information thrown in there for fun and background knowledge) begins with this: the 1929 bridge that was demolished in December 2009 was historically significant.

Historic bridges are often part of our transportation systems, and thus serve two purposes: 1) sharing a part of our transportation history and 2) servicing our current transportation needs. But, often, historic bridges need to be widened or altered in order to keep pace with modern safety regulations. Unfortunately, some bridges will end up being demolished. However, Section 4(f) of the DOT Act of 1966 states that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) may not approve a project that involves the use of a 4(f) resource unless there is 1) no prudent and feasible alternative, 2) all measures have been taken to minimize harm, and 3) there is a de minimis impact on the resource. Section 4(f) resources can be defined as any significant historic or archaeological site, any publicly owned park or recreation area, or wildlife or waterfowl refuge. Thus, historic bridges fall under historic resources. Normally, historic bridges fall under the Section 4(f) Programmatic Agreement for historic bridges. In the case of the Lake Champlain Bridge, it did not apply because there was an adverse effect to the historic bridge (i.e. demolition). That meant that an agreement through Section 106 mitigation must be reached by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, the State Historic Preservation Office, FHWA, and the AOT/DOT.

To add more federal law into the mix, Section 106 also applied because the bridge traversed the Chimney Point State Historic Site. Any demolition or construction would involve the historic site in its area of potential effect. Section 106 applies to projects that constitute an undertaking, meaning a project, activity or program, funded in whole or in part under the direct or indirect jurisdiction of a federal agency, including those carried out by or on behalf of a federal agency; those carried out with federal financial assistance; and those requiring a federal; permit, license, or approval” [36 CFR 800.16].  If this project has the potential to affect historic resources, then the Section 106 process must be followed. Any adverse effects to the resource must be avoided, minimized, or mitigated.

So, to achieve mitigation of the loss of the historically significant Lake Champlain Bridge, a lengthy Programmatic Agreement (PA) was developed between the Federal and State agencies, both New York and Vermont. The mitigation involves protection of the historic sites with stipulations such as site delineation (via fencing), vibration monitoring, dust suppression, archaeological monitoring, and most importantly: communication. My job involves insuring compliance with the PA. If you’re really interested, you can read my weekly reports. (Click there and scroll all the way to the bottom of the “Construction” page.) The most interesting portion of each report is the photo section, fyi. Check out the construction webcams, too, if you want to see the live action. Working on a construction site is an interesting, exciting challenge, and while new construction and historic preservation rarely speak in the same vocabulary, I’ve learned that better communication and a willingness to understand the other side can make a huge difference. And yes, I do walk around in a hard hat and a reflective safety vest. And I wear many, many layers to combat the frigid winter air that blows from Lake Champlain.

Working on site at Chimney Point, January 2011. It’s alright; I know I look ridiculous. But, everyone else on a construction site looks the same.

I do not always wear a hard hat; some days I am in the office. But, I will say that a few times I’ve been walking down the hall and reached up to see if I was wearing my hard hat. I think I’m getting to accustomed to wearing it! Aside from the Lake Champlain Bridge, my job involves project review: all transportation funded projects must be reviewed for compliance with provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106) as well as the DOT Act of 1966 (Section 4f). Unlike other states, Vermont has a Programmatic Agreement between the Agency of Transportation and the Division for Historic Preservation that allows the Agency of Transportation to conduct in house Section 106 reviews on standard projects. (The Lake Champlain Bridge is not an ordinary project, mostly because it was jointly owned by New York and Vermont.) Project can range from paving project to sidewalk improvements to road realignment to sign replacements and much more. It is absolutely amazing just how often preservation and transportation interact and just how frequently other fields intersect, such as wildlife, hydraulics, engineering, and construction. Every project requires careful review by all of the disciplines and when there is a problem with one, all must work together to find a solution and still meet the purpose and need of the project.

So that’s my job – without getting into too much detail. I love it. Each law has way more to it than I’ve outlined here, but clicks the links throughout the post for more information or ask me what I meant. I love talking through the laws!  And while the laws aren’t perfect and we will not agree with them all of the time, they make the preservation world go round, so to speak.

Care to share stories about your job?