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Rough ride. New highway funding bill could put some archeologists and environmental researchers in a jam.

New U.S. Transport Law Limits Archeology Studies

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

The road to funding has gotten considerably bumpier for some American archeologists and environmental researchers. President Barack Obama on Friday signed a major new transportation funding bill that extensively reworks—and cuts—a little-known program that has paid for hundreds of field research projects over the last few decades.

The $101 billion measure, formally known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), reauthorizes federal funding for road and transit projects over the next 2 years. It is the product of a long and contentious debate in Congress that included efforts to eliminate the Transportation Enhancements program (TEP), which for about 2 decades has required states to spend a small portion of their federal transport funds on 12 types of activities, including bike and walking paths, but also "archaeological planning & research," and "environmental mitigation." Between 1992 and 2011, the program fed more than $50 million to archeology and environmental research efforts, helping fund about 200 projects. But some lawmakers argued the nation couldn't afford such spending at a time when roads and bridges were crumbling.

Ultimately, Congress decided to do away with TEP and replace it with a new "Transportation Alternatives" program. That new effort combines TEP with several other programs and gives state governments greater control over spending, including the right to divert up to one-half of their share of the funding to other transportation projects. It also cuts by one-third the total funding available, to about $800 million per year.

The new law narrows the definition of archeological projects eligible for funding, requiring them to be "related to transportation projects," and broadens the eligibility of environmental projects. The end result, analysts say, will be that many more potential projects will be competing for a smaller pot of funds. Researchers, sharpen your elbows.

Posted in Funding