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.
Credit: State of Delaware
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
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
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.