Sprucing Up Highways Now Means More Than Tar: Trees, Trails Too

YOUR highway tax dollars are hard at work, paying for roads, bridges, tunnels - and ``enhancements.''

* In Lincoln, R.I., north of Providence, federal and state transportation dollars are funding a $1.3 million restoration and land-acquisition project in the Great Road Historic District. The money is being used to preserve the Eleazer Arnold house, built in 1687, and a mill from 1812.

* Meridian, Miss., has obtained $2.5 million in transportation funds to renovate historic railroad buildings.

* Muskogee, Okla., will use transportation funds to purchase 7.5 miles of abandoned Union Pacific Railroad line and build a bike and pedestrian trail.

These are among more than 2,100 transportation-enhancement projects that have been approved so far under a groundbreaking program established by Congress in 1991.

That year, lawmakers enacted the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, or ``Ice Tea''), a $150 billion, six-year omnibus transportation statute. One section, a $30-billion program that helps fund road construction by state and local governments, set aside $3 billion for enhancements rather than asphalt.

Under the program, each state receives a road-building allotment that the state transportation department disburses. At least 10 percent of each state's allotment must pay for enhancements.

The law designates 10 categories of enhancements: They include landscaping and other beautification projects; construction of facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians, including rails-to-trails conversions of abandoned railroad lines; acquisition of scenic easements and historic sites; rehabilitation of historic transportation buildings like depots and other historic-preservation projects; and other purposes.

ISTEA's enhancements program marked a dramatic change in thinking about federal highway policy, experts say.

``Ever since the interstate-highway system was started in the '50s, the goal of transportation officials was simply to build straighter, wider roads that could carry large volumes of traffic at high speeds,'' says Hal Hiemstra, vice president for national policy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) in Washington.

But the enhancements program is requiring road builders, especially in the states, to factor nontraditional considerations into their thinking. In a recent study of the program by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), conservationists, preservationists, and community leaders reported that some transportation officials were becoming more sensitive to environmental and aesthetic issues, according to Frederick Skaer, the FHWA official who oversees the program.

``ISTEA provided political acceptability for thinking about highways in new ways,'' Mr. Hiemstra of RTC says.

At the same time, the FHWA's Mr. Skaer says, many former critics of state transportation authorities are starting to understand the road-builders' viewpoint as the groups consult on enhancements projects. The people who are most successful in getting enhancement projects approved and funded, says Skaer, ``are learning to speak transportation as a second language.''

``Highway people traditionally were the black hats,'' says Hiemstra, characterizing the outlook of some environmentalists. ``But now many environmentalists are learning to work with transportation departments due to enhancements.''

ISTEA affords states wide flexibility in administering programs to approve enhancement applications. Some states, such as Colorado, Connecticut, Michigan, and Washington, got off to a fast start, Hiemstra reports. But in other states, including Massachusetts, enhancement programs are proceeding more slowly.

Under ISTEA, the federal government reimburses states for 80 percent of the costs of enhancement projects. According to an RTC study, about $650 million in federal enhancement funds had been distributed as of June 1, 1994.

The categories receiving the most funding were bicycle and pedestrian facilities, restoration of historic transportation facilities, rails-to-trails projects, and landscaping.

But halfway through ISTEA's six-year authorization, states are still obligating only about 25 percent of available enhancement funds, RTC reports. Start-up problems partly account for this.

But the slow approval rate may also reflect continued resistance among career highway officials. ``There is still a lot of hostility in state transportation departments, which see enhancements as taking away their highway-construction funds,'' Hiemstra says.

He anticipates that strong opposition to the transportation-enhancements program will mount when ISTEA comes up for reauthorization in 1997.

Speaking to a group of historic preservationists in Boston last month, the FHWA's Skaer cautioned them to use ISTEA funds wisely.

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