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RyPN Editorials april 11, 2001
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Railroad Preservation and ISTEA: Are You on Board?

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the landmark overhaul of Federal surface transportation spending program known as ISTEA-the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. ISTEA and its 1998 reauthorization, TEA-21, represent the most radical overhaul of Federal surface transportation spending since the creation of the Interstate highway system during the Eisenhower administration. In a sharp break with past practices, which required states to spend every dollar they received from the Federal highway trust fund to build new roads, ISTEA allows states to use up to half their money for "flexible use" transit alternatives, including commuter rail, light rail, subways, bike trails, or nearly any other legitimate transportation purpose. The 1990s renaissance in rail-based mass transit, particularly light rail, was fueled largely by the flexible funding climate created by ISTEA and its successor, TEA-21.

What does all this have to do with railway preservation? While highway and mass transit interests duke it out for the big multi-million dollar projects funded with ISTEA and TEA-21 money, a relatively little-noticed provision of these laws calls for 10% of the a state's total funding to be allocated to "Transportation Enhancements," defined as scenic easements, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, transit-related historic preservation, billboard control, and stormwater run-off control. Trivial though the enhancements program may be in the context of the total surface transportation appropriation, it amounts, quietly and without fanfare, to the single greatest program of Federal assistance to rail preservation in the history of our movement.

Because ISTEA and TEA-21 enhancement programs are chosen competitively on a state-by-state basis, there is no single national record of the number of historical rail preservation projects undertaken with funding fromthis source. It's doubtful that anyone in our movement has ever sought to compile national figures on the total number of dollars or projects. Yet all anecdotal evidence suggests that the impact is substantial, and that it extends far beyond the organized rail preservation community of museums, tourist railroads, and NRHS chapters.

For every high-profile grant conferred on a well-known rail preservation group (the $300,000 grant received by the Michigan State Trust for Rail Preservation for its 2-8-4 Berkshire Pere Marquette 1225 is a good example), ISTEA and TEA-21 have also funded dozens if not hundreds of depot and station restoration and adaptive reuse projects. Many of these projects have been undertaken by local historic preservationists and planners with little or no involvement from organized railroad preservationists per se.

Snow Hill, MD PRR Depot, Erik Ledbetter photo

It's hard to overemphasize how widespread and diverse the rail preservation activities funded by ISTEA have become, and how far the impact of this legislation has extended beyond our community. As a case in point, let me offer you the former Pennsylvania Railroad depot in Snow Hill, MD. Worcester County, MD received funding from the ISTEA enhancement program in 1995 to renovate the old train station in Snow Hill and to establish a 10-mile section of rail trail on a long-disused and lifted PRR branch running between Snow Hill and Stockton (independent shortline Maryland and Delaware still offers rail freight service as far as Snow Hill itself). The stucco depot now serves as a general community center, with its exterior preserved largely as it was in railroad use, and its interior reconfigured as meeting spaces. To the best of my knowledge, this small project proceeded with out anything except the most informal input from local rail historians and enthusiasts. And yet, it represents a substantial contribution to saving the physical heritage of railroading in this small Eastern Shore community.

For each project like this, I'm sure dozens of others could be located and identified. There are perhaps three conclusions we can draw from this story and others like it. First, ISTEA and its successor TEA-21 have had a tremendous impact on making funding available for small to mid-sized rail preservation projects. Second, as an organized community, rail preservationists have not taken as much advantage of this program as we can. Has your organization ever submitted an ISTEA or TEA-21 application, or supplied research support or expert testimony in behalf of one? If not, get involved! Even if your own preservation site cannot easily qualify for transportation enhancement funding, you can lend expert advice and counsel to other projects in your area which do, and which support the overall goal of rail preservation in your region.

The third point is perhaps the hardest: as a community, we have had regrettably little impact on defending these programs and securing their future. To explain what I mean, contrast our activities with those of the Rails to Trails Movement. Rail preservationists have had an uneasy relationship with the trails movement, and our interests are not always aligned. Yet this community lobbied actively and effectively to preserve the Transportation Enhancements program when ISTEA was reauthorized as TEA-21 in 1998. I know of no corresponding national campaign on the rail preservation side. To the extent that we as preservationists benefit from TEA-21 enhancement funds, we owe it in no small part to our friends and sometimes competitors in the trails movement.

TEA-21 is out there. The money is ours for the earning with good proposals-contact your state's Department of Transportation for applications and details. And the money is ours to keep and defend, or ignore and lose, when TEA-21 next comes up for reauthorization after Federal fiscal year 2003.