Historic Bridges: Bridging the Gap Between Safety Concerns and Historic Preservation

Report No: 96-R28

Published in 1996

About the report:

Historic preservation legislation and grassroots efforts promoting preservation have grown over the years both in scope and in the amount of resources pledged to the cause. Among the beneficiaries of these endeavors are historic bridges, which once lingered in the shadow of buildings and historic districts as protected properties. The push to preserve historic bridges has evolved into a strong agenda, bolstered by legislation mandating the mitigation of harm to bridges by highway departments. This report initially describes the background of the rise of bridges as preservation targets and the legislation supporting preservation efforts. The two laws most important in the preservation of historic bridges are the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the Department of Transportation Act (DOT Act), both introduced in 1966. NHPA Section 106 imposes demanding procedural requirements on highway departments pursuing projects within the NHPA's scope. The provision commonly known as Section 4(f) of the DOT Act imposes substantive restrictions, preventing federal approval for projects that use historic properties unless it has been demonstrated that there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use and that harm to the historic properties is being minimized. The report next details the options available for dealing with historic bridges when they are deemed inadequate to serve the needs of the traveling public. In such situations historic bridges may be rehabilitated for continued use or they may be replaced. Rehabilitation is limited by the structural realities of old and deteriorated bridges. Replacement may result in the destruction of the historic structure, but often this need not be the case. Through adaptive reuse the original owner, or a new public or private owner, employs the old bridge at its site or at a new location for a new purpose. The possibilities for adaptive reuse range from carrying pedestrians and bikers on a trail to hosting a restaurant. Adaptive reuse's appeal is hindered by the potentially prohibitive costs associated with responsibility for an old bridge. This section is followed by a case study that provides a concrete example of how the legislative regime and response options relating to inadequate historic bridges can have significant effects in Virginia. The procedural requirements of Section 106 implicated by a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) project to replace the historic Route 1 bridges over the North Anna River held the project in check for more than one year. The example shows that despite the apparent lack of substantive bite, Section 106's procedural requirements can have substantial effects. In concluding, the authors argue that the focus of federal legislation on historic preservation overlooks the issue of public safety, placing the importance of the continued existence of old bridges above the safe travel of the public. Accordingly, the authors recommend that this legislation be amended to address the priority of public safety, and, in particular, to modify Section 4(f) to reduce its burden on highway departments when the bridge in question is unsafe to procedural requirements of the type imposed by Section 106.

Disclaimer Statement:The contents of this report reflect the views of the author(s), who is responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the data presented herein. The contents do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, or the Federal Highway Administration. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation. Any inclusion of manufacturer names, trade names, or trademarks is for identification purposes only and is not to be considered an endorsement.


  •  Jennifer C. Eilers, Andrew T. Vedder 

Last updated: December 17, 2023

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