Developing Historic Contexts for Roads: A Model for Identification and Evaluation

Focus Area

Historic Preservation/Cultural Resources


Community & Cultural Concerns







Research Idea Scope

Historic roads are an intrinsic part of the nation’s heritage, representing different periods and trends in engineering design from the wagon roads that survive in rural areas to early transcontinental routes, like the Lincoln Highway and Route 66. As linear resources with a current transportation function, historic roads have been challenging for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), state departments of transportation (DOTs), and state historic preservation offices (SHPOs) to define and evaluate historic significance.
The FHWA and DOTs must take into account the effects their transportation projects may have on historic roads that are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (National Register), pursuant to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Historic roads eligible for listing in the National Register are also protected under Section 4(f) of the U.S. Department of Transportation Act. Oftentimes, only a small segment of a much larger road network is affected by a transportation project. Without the benefit of a survey and evaluation of the entire road, FHWA and DOTs may struggle with how to determine the context and significance of the road segment. As a result, agencies often assume National Register eligibility for the entire historic road and conduct Section 106 consultation with SHPO on any bridge, road, or intersection project that falls within the corridor. Given the large number of potentially historic roads, this presents a major challenge for decision makers.  
The objectives of this research are to (1) develop a methodology for identifying and evaluating the National Register eligibility and non-eligibility of roads and associated resources; (2) develop a national historic context for roads; (3) develop a highway-specific model context that can serve as an example of best practices; and (4) apply and test the survey and evaluation methodology and model historic context to demonstrate its utility to state DOTs, FHWA and SHPOs.

Urgency and Payoff

The sooner each of the objectives outlined above are accomplished, the sooner an efficient and systematic approach to evaluating National Register eligibility of roads and road-related resources can be used by the FHWA and DOTs, facilitating interagency cooperation and decision making and saving those agencies countless hours and dollars.

The proposed research would establish an efficient and systematic approach to evaluating roads and road-related resources for National Register eligibility. This approach would simplify interagency coordination and decision making, and ultimately save these agencies time and effort. 

The methodology would address identification, evaluation, documentation, and registration requirements, providing state DOTs with a consistent and replicable approach to historic roads. State DOTs, SHPOs, and cultural resource professionals currently struggle with how to efficiently and consistently evaluate the significance and integrity of historic roads. Traditional methods often lead to inconsistent and unexpected eligibility recommendations. The evaluation of historic roads without benefit of resource-specific guidance or contextual information has also led to increased project costs and delays. 

The national historic context for roads would provide significant key benefits to State DOTs, SHPOs, and cultural resource professionals as well. First, the national historic context would offer a succinct background and history of the overall trends and influences on road development. As a result, this general background and history does not need to be developed when preparing a historic context for a specific transportation project that may affect a historic road. Instead, time and focus can be spent on developing the local context and its relationship to the national trends. The model context outline would provide guidance for the development of a local or regional context that is adequate for Section 106 eligibility evaluation purposes.



Suggested By

ADC50 Historic and Archeological Preservation in Transportation Committee (Via TRB RNS Database)