Historic-preservation efforts can slow stimulus projects

WASHINGTON — A routine federal requirement that is intended to preserve historical sites threatens to delay some economic stimulus projects around the country.

Federal projects, including American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects, that could affect sites with historical value are required to undergo reviews that consider ways to minimize disturbance of the sites.

That has meant delays in getting crucial stimulus projects out the door.

So far, there have been only scattered delays, but the state and tribal offices that conduct the reviews say they're concerned that they won't have enough resources to keep pace with all the reviews that will be needed in the next round of projects.

Historical review is frequently time-consuming. What's different now is that state and tribal reviewers say the influx of stimulus-funded projects is increasing their work load while the budgets to carry out that work are flat or declining.

In March 2009, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers told Congress that at least 13 state historic-preservation offices had undergone staffing cuts, and 30 were in the midst of hiring freezes. As for tribal historic preservation offices, the average federal dollars allocated to each tribe have decreased in the past year as new tribal preservation offices have been instituted, according to the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.

In a Government Accountability Office report in February, officials at the Departments of Commerce and Transportation said the historical-review process had affected the selection and timing of projects.

Of the 16 states surveyed, one — California — told the GAO that historical reviews already had caused delays in getting projects out the door, and six other states said the reviews might cause delays.