Federal rules protect history, archaeological sites, but cost time and money for road projects

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Capital News Service

LANSING  — In her State of the State speech, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the story of 13-year-old Monte Scott of Muskegon Heights. When potholes riddled local streets, he took action filling them with dirt and a shovel. 

While Monte’s story may be inspiring, the process of fixing Michigan roads is rarely that simple. 

Multiple problems start with funding, project assessment and permits, affecting communities differently. 

By law, any road project that receives federal aid or permit must consult with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to assess its possible effects on historic resources.

“When [county road commissions] go to modify a shoulder of a road or change pavement, they’re forced to go through the State Historic Preservation Office to get permits to go forward with the project, even if what they’re doing does not go outside the scope of the road work done in the past,” said Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township.

“They’re not exempt from that,” McBroom said. “That adds a significant amount of time and expense to the project that I think is unnecessary.”

Because those requirements are based in federal law, McBroom and the Legislature can do little to change them. Despite those difficulties, there is still interest within the state to ease those requirements.

According to Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Martha MacFarlane-Faes, her agency reviews several thousand projects a year, including cell towers, major federal highway projects and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects. 

“It does affect the whole state,”  she said. 

“In more urbanized areas, of course, you’re dealing with historic districts and buildings and other types of structures, and then in rural areas you tend to see more archaeological sites or farmsteads,” MacFarlane-Faes said.

Consultation with SHPO is mandatory for the release of federal money.

A number of road projects in Michigan have led to archaeological discoveries, from early Native American sites to unmarked cemeteries, SHPO archaeologist Stacy Tchorzynski said.

“It’s common enough that this is the reason why the [Michigan Department of Transportation] has in-house cultural resources staff, including archaeology staff,” Tchorzynski said.

While there is no pending state legislation to relax the consultation requirements, the additional costs and delays remain an issue, according to Ed Noyola, the deputy director of the Michigan County Road Association.

  He said SHPO looks at historical facilities and possible archaeological sites. Because of the federal requirements, local agencies must acquire a consultant to review projects for those  purposes.

Noyola said, “Now that’s going to add to the cost of the project. That’s going to add to the delay or the time frame to approve a project. 

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple overlay or whether it’s an improvement where we have to expand the shoulder, expand the roadway, move the ditches, whatever we’re moving for the project. Based on that, it makes it a little bit more challenging for us and a lot more time,” he said. 

Craig Bryson, the senior communications manager for the Oakland County Road Commission, said it’s common to research four to five SHPO projects a month.

MacFarlane-Faes said, “There is a strong federal law that is behind that, and federal highways, and [the Michigan Department of Transportation] would not allow these projects to proceed without the SHPO review.”

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