Columbia River Highway, circa 1940

Few historic roads exist unchanged and unaltered since first conceived and constructed. Many historic roads have a “history” of evolution and changes that present the modern observer with an array of layers, alignments, materials, alterations, accommodations, and even losses over the years. When identifying a historic road, it is also important to investigate the current status of the road. Only with a complete understanding of the road’s history and its current status can a comprehensive plan of action (preservation, restoration, interpretation, advocacy) be undertaken.

Losses, Threats and Destruction

Many historic roads face severe losses, threats and destruction. Someone or some policy determines the road should be widened or straightened, the cast-iron lights are a safety hazard or stone curbing is to be replaced with concrete. Often such actions are undertaken without an understanding or appreciation for the road as an historic resource—the action a part of standard transportation practices.

When identifying negative impacts to an historic road it is important to understand the origin behind the activity. Safety is the reason most often cited to justify an action on a historic road. Other common issues are congestion, maintenance (a new material or detail is easier or less expensive to maintain or repair; or an historic replacement part is no longer available) and expense.

Most threats to historic roads fall within four categories: realignment, replacement, demolition and regional or outside pressures.

Realignment refers to the adjustment or movement of the horizontal or vertical alignment of the historic road. Realignment is cited when the proposed shift represents only a portion of the historic road—the activity reconnecting to the historic alignment at some point. Realignment may be as simple as a shift in the travel lanes to soften a sharp curve or as destructive as several miles of new road abandoning the original alignment.

The replacement of road and roadside features can greatly alter the context and integrity of an historic road. A historic road is a collection of details—cobble gutters, concrete paving, art deco lighting, limestone bridges, park lawns, woodlands, sandstone outcroppings and Beaux Arts balustrades. It is likely time, wear or even accidents may necessitate the replacement of an element or elements of a historic road. Every effort should be made to replace the elements with like materials, constructions, finishes and forms in their original location. While the improvement of such features with modern technologies (such as reinforcing guardrail or providing a “break-away mechanism” for lighting) may be considered for safety or maintenance, the replacement of historic materials with imitation products or false finishes, is an example of incremental destruction and should be carefully considered and likely avoided.

Destruction refers to the complete removal of a historic roadway or roadside element. There are two types of destruction—complete and incremental. The loss of an entire historic road, through a single action, is an example of complete destruction. It is possible that the same destruction could occur incrementally over a period of years, even decades, through cumulative losses, realignments, replacements and other activities, that combined, ultimately result in a complete destruction. Incremental destruction can occur through a systematic policy or program to replace the historic road, or through a series of seemingly unrelated events and policies.

regional threats
Regional threats address the broader landscape and region in which your historic road is located. Are changes in the area, seemingly unrelated, having an adverse effect on your historic road? New development, the extension of sewer and water lines, or shifts in tourism may suddenly increase the traffic volume on your historic road—altering driver behavior, speed and safety. Does the change contradict the design origins and purpose for which the road was designed—a parkway becoming a commuter route or a farm to market road transformed into a commercial strip? Of all the types of threats, regional threats are the most difficult to control. Still by being cognizant of, and anticipating such possibilities, you can work tominimize negative impacts through advanced planning or policy.

Safety and Liability

Safety and liability concerns drive many of the actions, activities and management decisions for all roads in the United States. The federal, state or local government that owns the road not only has a public duty to make the road as safe as possible, but most likely also carries the legal responsibility (liability) for maintaining a safe road.

Safety goals and expectations continue to change and evolve with technology and driver behavior. With few exceptions, historic roads, regardless of an illustrious past, must meet many of the expectations and obligations of the modern highway network. While a historic road may have been a safety innovator and model fifty years ago, it is likely new safety regulations will govern its management today. There exist, however, innovative safety options and strategies that can enhance a historic road’s safety while also respecting preservation goals. Some solutions may be simple—the redesign of a cast iron lamp post in a light-weight steel that offers a break-away feature should it be struck by an errant automobile. Others may be more involved (and expensive), such as the placement of a concrete core inside an historic stone wall to meet modern crash standards. Still others may involve cutting edge technology and creativity such as intelligent transportation systems, speed management or traffic calming. It is essential to assess the current safety and liability status of a historic road in order to advocate for or implement alternate methods and solutions more appropriate for a historic road.

When identifying issues of safety and liability concerning a historic road, it is helpful to determine the following:

managing agency
Most every road in the United States is owned and managed by the federal, state or local government. In a few rare instances a road may be privately owned and managed. Ownership impacts virtually every decision from physical elements, funding and maintenance to the ethic a particular organization may have toward historic preservation. The managing agency (often a state transportation department or local department of public works) will have information on future plans and activities for roads under their jurisdiction.

functional classification
All roads in the United States are identified by a “functional classification” characterizing the road’s use. Functional classification is the basis from which most all management decisions, design requirements and safety policies arise. Functional classifications are: freeway, arterial, collector and local.

land use
Land use planning policy (zoning, master plans, comprehensive plans), perhaps seemingly unrelated, can have a significant impact on historic roads. Plans that allow for or encourage suburban sprawl can put unexpected pressures on historic roads as populations grow and transportation patterns adjust to new destinations. Conversely, plans that encourage agricultural preservation or smart growth my, by default, preserve the character of historic roads by working to maintain a service level that allows the road to continue functioning safely.

It is important to understand all the problems, real or imagined, associated with your road. High accident rates, capacity issues or problems with speed or pedestrian safety should be understood and acknowledged. Specific regional concerns such as avalanche, frost heave, flooding, tsunami or earthquakes may place special burdens on historic roads not considered originally, or may, through new technologies, present new opportunities.

liability laws
Liability concerns are based in safety considerations, but are the direct result of public policy and law. What is the risk the road owner (managing agency) carries? Will the state or local government managing a historic road carry a burdensome risk, or be accused of negligence should an accident, injury or fatality occur on the road? Every state’s laws vary.