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As part of effort to make it a National Historic Trail, Route 66 added to Most Endangered Historic Places list

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Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Time’s running out to preserve Route 66, the National Trust for Historic Preservation warned. The nonprofit, which has already endorsed the proposal to designate the Mother Road a National Historic Trail, this week highlighted the urgency of the situation by adding Route 66 to its annual list of the country’s Most Endangered Historic Places.

“While Congress has taken important steps to designate Route 66 a permanent National Historic Trail, which would bring national recognition and economic development to the route’s historic sites, legislation must be passed by the U.S. Senate… before the end of 2018,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote in including Route 66 on its list. “Otherwise, a vital preservation opportunity may be lost.”

Specifically, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is referring to H.R.801, which Illinois Representative Darin LaHood introduced in February of last year and which would make the road the country’s 20th National Historic Trail. Not only would such a designation give Route 66 the same stature as the Trail of Tears, the Oregon Trail, and the Selma to Montgomery Freedom March Trail, it would also provide permanent federal funding for improvements and preservation efforts along Route 66.

Any existing funding for Route 66 preservation projects comes from the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, which distributes about $100,000 per year to local or state Route 66 preservation projects. However, the program, which began in 2009, is set to end in 2019. Observers and Route 66 preservationists do not believe that the National Park Service will renew the program after 2019.

“The threat to Route 66 has really been a slow burn. It has been tough for these smaller businesses all along Route 66, and over the years there have been different authentic elements that already have been lost,” Amy Webb, a senior field director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told the Chicago Tribune.

Decommissioned in 1985, Route 66 remains more than 85 percent intact, according to the NPS, though as Bill Thomas, chairman of the Route 66 Road Ahead Initiative, has pointed out, little remains of the original 18-foot-wide poured concrete roadbed that hasn’t been paved over or widened, and signage varies widely from state to state along the route.

Another bill, H.R.66, which Illinois Representative Rodney Davis introduced in January of last year, also proposes to back Route 66 preservation efforts but would leave the planning largely up to the various states through which Route 66 passed.

As H.R.801 has wound its way through Congress, the National Trust for Historic Preservation endorsed the bill, citing 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. “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 said in a statement.

The House of Representatives passed H.R.801 earlier this month and sent it on to the Senate, which referred the bill to its Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

While the National Trust for Historic Preservation included various historic Route 66 motels on its Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2007, the entire route has yet to make the list. (Other routes, including Louisiana’s historic river road, the Bronx River Parkway, New Mexico’s El Camino Real Historic Trail, and Tuscon’s Sunshine Mile, have at various times made the list over the last 30-plus years.) In addition to listing Route 66, the National Trust has also started a petition to ask Congress to pass H.R.801 before the end of the current congressional term.

According to the National Trust, less than 5 percent of the 300-plus sites included on the list throughout its history have been subsequently lost thanks to the advocacy for the sites that resulted from the list’s exposure. This year’s list also includes the city dock area in Annapolis, Maryland; the Ashley River Historic District in Charleston, South Carolina; the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital on the Omaha Indian Reservation, Nebraska; hurricane-damaged historic resources in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; the Isaiah T. Montgomery House in Mound Bayou, Mississippi; Larimer Square in Denver, Colorado; the Mary and Eliza Freeman houses in Bridgeport, Connecticut; Mount Vernon and Piscataway National Park in Mount Vernon, Virginia, and Accokeek, Maryland; the Ship on the Desert in Salt Flat, Texas; and the Walkout Schools of Los Angeles, California.

The World Monuments Fund and Landmarks Illinois have both given Route 66 similar designations: The former added Route 66 to its 2008 World Monuments Watch list while the latter added Route 66 to its Most Endangered Historic Places list last year.