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  • David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.
 

Archaeologists Fear Outcome of Congressional Debate on Highway Bill

9 November 2011 5:00 am
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State of Delaware

A ceramic bottle recovered from a shipwreck site near Lewes, Delaware. Funding from the federal Transportation Enhancements program has helped archaeologists excavate the wreck, which dates to the 1770s.

When engineers rebuilding a beach near Lewes, Delaware, in 2004 began finding bits of Colonial-era pottery mixed in with the sand, archaeologists quickly realized they had found a historic shipwreck. Soon, researchers were carefully excavating the wreck, which historians believe is the British vessel Severn, sunk in a storm in 1774.

They've recovered more than 45,000 "world-class artifacts … nowhere else on the continent do we have this kind of stuff from this period," says David Clarke, the state archaeologist for the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), which received money for the dig from a special pot created by federal highway-building legislation. That pot, officially known as the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program, "has pumped a lot of money into our field," he says.

More than $51 million, to be exact. But Clarke and other archaeologists are now watching anxiously as Congress debates whether to renew the enhancements program. Many lawmakers are calling for modifying the program, which has funneled funds to some 200 archaeology projects since 1992, and some want to kill it, calling it wasteful and unnecessary.

Today the struggle enters a new phase, as a U.S. Senate committee takes up its long-awaited version of legislation to reauthorize the federal government's $50-billion-a-year surface transport funding system. Many archaeologists "are watching the process with bated breath," Clarke says.

Under current law, states must spend 10% of certain federal transport funds on enhancement projects. That's a category covering 12 types of activities, ranging from building sidewalks, bike trails, and museums to beautifying roadways, rehabilitating or buying historic sites, and protecting wildlife. The list also includes "archaeological planning & research."In practice, the rule means that about 2% of overall surface transport budgets go to enhancements, an amount that has exceeded $12 billion since 1992.

The bulk of the funds—about 60% in 2010—have gone to walking and biking projects. Less than 1% of the funds have gone to archaeologists, including about $200,000 to the Lewes shipwreck excavation in 2007. "We couldn't have done the Lewes project without it," says Clarke.

The existing highway law expired in 2009. Since then Congress has been passing short-term extensions, until it can fully reauthorize the law. That effort, however, has been complicated by a steep decline in revenue from gas taxes, which provide most of the money for transport projects. Many states, meanwhile, have complained that the existing law is too complicated and onerous. Earlier this year, both House of Representatives and Senate leaders announced their intention to try to do a major rewrite of the law later this year or early next, sparking debate over the future of the TE program.

In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has outlined a plan to authorize $230 billion for transportation infrastructure spending over 6 years. That would be a significant cut from current levels. Committee chair John Mica (R-FL) has provided few details, but has since said that enhancements won't be included in the bill he expects to release later this year. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has promised that states "will not be required to spend a specific amount of funding on specific types of projects, such as transportation museums or landscaping."

In the Senate, some lawmakers also argue that the United States can no longer afford TE projects when so many bridges and roads need to be repaired. Last month, for example, Republican senators John McCain (AZ), Rand Paul (KY), and Tom Coburn (OK) all offered amendments to pending legislation to end or scale back the program. Each highlighted projects that they said had wasted taxpayer dollars, including a multimillion-dollar "turtle tunnel" in Florida that allows the reptiles and other animals to pass under a busy highway, and a host of expensive landscaping efforts. Lawmakers, however, defeated both the McCain and Paul amendments by wide margins, and Coburn withdrew his.

In part, the rebuffs reflected a desire to wait for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to put the final touches on its reauthorization proposal, which was released last Friday. The bill, dubbed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), would reauthorize spending for 2 years at current levels. MAP-21 would also dramatically reduce the number of transportation programs and reorganize the survivors into fewer, broader initiatives.

The TE program, for instance, would be consolidated with several others, and states would be given a greater say over spending. The result, according to bill watchers, could be that funding for TE projects would come out of a smaller pot that could be divided more ways. By some estimates, the total pool of available money could drop by 25% under the Senate bill.

Such potential outcomes "have a lot of people a little afraid of what is going to happen," says Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation's State Highway Administration (SHA). Her agency has helped win TE funds for a number of high-profile projects, including $2 million to raise and study a sunken vessel from the War of 1812. But she notes that many other states don't tap TE funds for archaeology. And she predicts that, even if Congress scales back TE requirements, some states will continue to see funding archaeology and other enhancement projects as a critical part of their mission: "Some understand the value of cultural and natural resource projects and will continue to invest."

Today's markup will give researchers a better sense of where the debate is headed. A House version is expected later this year, and lawmakers have said they want to reach a final deal before the current extension of the surface transportation bill expires next spring.

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