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As National Historic Trail legislation progresses, one Route 66 town expresses concern

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Photo by Gouldy.

While the legislation that aims to declare Route 66 a National Historic Trail cleared its first hurdle this month with a unanimous Congressional committee vote, one town that relies heavily on the road for tourism voiced concern over the potential impacts of the designation.

H.R. 801, which Illinois Representative Darin LaHood introduced last year and which was the subject of a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing last November, passed the House Natural Resources committee earlier this week and was reported to the full House of Representatives. The bill, which would effectively replace the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, which was put in place in 2009 and is set to expire in 2019, would ensure that preservation efforts for Route 66 would continue indefinitely into the future.

Before it passed the committee, LaHood offered a few minor amendments to the bill, including phrasing that ensured that the proposed National Historic Trail would include all alignments of Route 66 throughout its history as well as language that would prohibit the Secretary of the Interior–who would administer the trail via the National Park Service–from using eminent domain or condemnation to create the trail.

Eminent domain was one of the primary concerns the Williams, Arizona, City Council had last month when it passed its own resolution opposing H.R. 801 and asked the Arizona Congressional delegation to oppose the bill. Specifically, the council cited a provision in H.R. 801 giving the National Park Service the authority to acquire land up to a quarter of a mile on either side of the trail itself.

However, as Bill Thomas, chairman of the Route 66 Road Ahead Initiative, noted in a letter to the Williams City Council, that provision is essentially boilerplate language inserted into every bill designating a National Historic Trail that merely gives the NPS the ability to protect historic sites. “However, trail budgets are small and do not include funds for land acquisition,” Thomas wrote. “The key to this portion of the bill is that its language expressively forbids the Federal Government from purchasing land, except from a willing seller.”

In fact, Thomas said that ability to purchase land has only been used once in the 40-year history of National Historic Trails.

The section of Route 66 that passes through Williams not only comes closest to the Grand Canyon, but also was the last section to be bypassed when Interstate 40 opened there in October 1984, a year before Route 66 was decommissioned as a federal highway.

In addition, according to the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership, the National Trust for Historic Preservation threw its support behind H.R. 801 prior to this week’s committee vote. In support of its decision, the National Trust cited a 1995 study that determined Route 66 met the requirements for National Historic Trail designation as well as several prior declarations of the road’s significance. “Numerous buildings along Route 66 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), and a 2012 Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF) establishing the road’s national significance was recently approved by the Keeper of the National Register. Route 66 has been designated a National Scenic Byway in four states, including one segment that has been designated an All-American Road—the highest designation offered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).”

The National Trust’s support comes on the heels of the National Park Service’s endorsement of the bill during last year’s subcommittee hearing.

No hearings for the bill have yet been scheduled in the House of Representatives. More than 20 representatives, almost all from states Route 66 passed through, have cosponsored the bill.