National Park Service officials who have worked on the federal grant program dedicated to preserving what’s left of Route 66 say they will continue to support the program with limited services despite the fact that it came to an end last year. However, they warn that their efforts cannot continue indefinitely without any input from Congress.
“It’s really going to be a fiscal year by fiscal year kind of thing,” said Kaisa Barthuli, a program manager for the National Park Service who had helped administer the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. “Right now, we have some funding (under the umbrella of the National Historic Trails office) for this year, but we’re not sure about next year.”
The 10-year preservation program, which was approved in 1999 but not funded until 2001, promised matching grants for preservation projects focused on “the special places and stories of the historic highway,” according to the National Park Service’s website for the program. Congress reauthorized the program for another 10 years in 2009.
Over those 18 years, according to Barthuli, the program distributed $2,266,000 to 152 individual projects. Meanwhile, that grant money helped leverage an additional $3.5 million in funding. While a portion of that money went to national-level projects concerned with the entire stretch of Route 66, she said that most of the program’s efforts went toward local projects.
“To some extent, that was intentional. Route 66 is characterized by small businesses, mom and pop businesses: gas stations, cafes, motels. That’s literally where the rubber hits the road.”
Barthuli pointed to a couple “real fantastic examples” of what the program made possible over the years, including the restoration of the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma, and of the Palms Grill in Atlanta, Illinois.
“(The program’s grants) can lead to a domino effect, where the community sees what happens with one property, and when more people come to visit that property, then the place next door opens shop,” she said. For example, after the Palms Grill reopened, the local tax base increased by 42 percent, according to documentation submitted to the NPS.
With the official sunset of the program, the NPS can no longer offer grants, but Barthuli said that her office is still providing ongoing technical support to owners of historic properties along Route 66 and to anybody on the road who needs advice on historic preservation.
Whether funding in any form will return is a big question. Last year, Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership, said there’s been zero discussion about reauthorizing the program yet again. Which is perhaps the reason why Route 66 backers have concentrated their efforts on having Congress declare the Mother Road a National Historic Trail.
That effort began in early 2017 with a bill that Illinois Representative Darin LaHood introduced that would make Route 66 the country’s 20th National Historic Trail. The bill then passed the U.S. House of Representatives and went on to the Senate in June 2018, but any hopes it would be passed vaporized with the 35-day government shutdown toward the end of 2018.
Backers of the legislation had hoped to see it reintroduced last year with the start of the current congressional session, but according to Thomas, legislators have been hesitant to reintroduce the bill until after the resolution of a case currently before the Supreme Court, United States Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association, a case that grew out of the proposed construction of a natural gas pipeline across the Appalachian Trail and that now concerns whether the U.S. Forest Service or the National Park Service has jurisdiction over National Historic Trails. Legal observers expect that case to be resolved by June, after which it will inform any future plans to create additional National Historic Trails.
Should Congress designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail, it would then provide a number of opportunities for further preservation work along Route 66, including consistent signage along the entire 2,448-mile stretch of the road that was decommissioned as a U.S. highway in 1985.
And even though the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has now effectively come to an end, Barthuli said that the collaborative efforts that resulted from it did help put Route 66 back on the map, so to say.
“Unquestionably there’s been a huge change in the road,” she said. “I do believe the program really caught the attention of communities that otherwise wouldn’t have paid attention to the highway, and it provided some real important validation of the history of Route 66.”
Whether that validation will be enough to continue the program’s preservation efforts in some form, though, remains to be seen.
(h/t to Route 66 News)