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Route 66 backers focus on National Historic Trail status as preservation funding program ends

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Photo by Thomas Hawk.

For 20 years, those looking to revitalize Route 66 have relied on a relatively modest trickle of money from Congress to accomplish their goals — a modest trickle that will soon come to an end. Rather than abandon their efforts, however, Route 66 preservationists intend to take another crack at securing a permanent source of funding by declaring the Mother Road a National Historic Trail.

“The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has been worthwhile, yes, absolutely,” said Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership. “But the National Historic Trail legislation will be an improvement.”

Administered by the National Park Service, the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program — the only source of federal funding dedicated to preserving Route 66 — distributed $2 million over the last 20 years to projects like Candacy Taylor’s documentation of Green Book sites along Route 66. While it started as a 10-year program and received another 10-year reauthorization in 2009, Thomas said there’s been no discussion regarding reauthorizing the program for a third 10-year term.

“We have kept it as a fallback in case there are any problems with getting the legislation passed, but (another reauthorization of the program) is essentially off the table,” he said.

The legislation Thomas refers to, which would designate Route 66 as the country’s 20th National Historic Trail, would essentially pick up where H.R. 801 (and S. 3609) left off. That bill, which Illinois Representative Darin LaHood introduced in February of 2017, passed the House of Representatives in June of last year and received support from the National Parks Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a handful of senators. However, it ultimately expired at the end of the 2017-2018 session of Congress, in part because the 35-day government shutdown prevented the Senate from advancing the bill out of committee, according to Thomas.

That means the bill has to be reintroduced in Congress for it to be considered again. While most bills that expired in December were almost automatically reintroduced at the beginning of this year, the National Historic Trail legislation is still sitting on the sidelines, Thomas said, because “we’re working out the details of the language” with Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, two of the senators who supported the bill last year.

Failing to provide Route 66 funding “would do real damage to the ‘Main Street of America,’ hurting small businesses that have been left behind and leaving landmark locations to fall into disrepair,” Udall said in a statement to the Associated Press earlier this year.

Thomas said designating Route 66 as a National Historic Trail will be an improvement over the current Route 66 funding situation because such status would be permanent and wouldn’t require reauthorization every decade. Its new status would also “provide an ongoing federal focus,” leading to greater attention to the road of the sort that the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has already created.

“Where I live in Atlanta, Illinois, we’ve benefited from three different National Park Service grants, and this road has literally brought our downtown area back to life,” Thomas said. “(The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program) has also been directly responsible for bringing people together along the road. It literally birthed the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership and got all eight states along the road to cooperate for the first time since the road was decommissioned.”

A number of details of the National Historic Trail designation still have to be hammered out, Thomas said. Among them, the amount of funding that will become available for preservation projects and which government entity will administer the trail.

According to the National Trails System Act of 1968, only an act of Congress can create new Historic Trail designations, and a trail must meet three criteria to qualify for the designation: It must be of historical significance; it must be of national significance; and it must have potential for historic interpretation or public recreational use. The Secretary of the Interior and/or the Secretary of Agriculture administer the existing 19 National Historic Trails.

While the National Park Service studied Route 66 for a potential National Historic Trail designation once before, in 1990, and found that it met the criteria for National Historic Trail status, Congress decided at the time not to designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail and instead created the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.

In addition to the yet-to-be-introduced National Historic Trail legislation, Route 66 also stands to benefit from H.R. 66 (and S. 1014, the Senate counterpart legislation), the Route 66 Centennial Commission Act. Similar to the H.R. 66 introduced in 2017, the bill not only proposes the formation of a commission tasked with celebrating the road’s centennial in 2026 it also directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to prepare a preservation plan for Route 66.

“We want to have a wonderful grand celebration, so we have to get our house ready for all the guests who are going to celebrate with us,” Thomas said. “But at the same time, we don’t want to just plan a big party, we want to take advantage of the time between now and 2026 to further leverage Route 66 for economic development purposes — that is where its greatest strength lies.”

H.R. 66 breezed through the House of Representatives in February and has since been assigned to the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Thomas said he’d like to see not just a federal Route 66 Centennial Commission but also centennial commissions in each of the eight states that Route 66 passes through. To date, Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma have created such commissions and Thomas said Texas and California have proposed their own commissions.

While other approaches to reviving Route 66 have been suggested in the past — including recommissioning the highway to attract new federal funding for it — Thomas said he believes National Historic Trail status is the best path forward.

“Recommissioning is an intriguing idea, but even if it were successful, it wouldn’t include funding for the historic preservation, economic development, promotional, or educational elements,” he said. “The National Historic Trail legislation would encompass all of that.”