WASHINGTON — A truck driver forced his oversized tractor-trailer rig through the historic Mt. Orne covered bridge in Lancaster, N.H., last year, causing extensive damage to the wood span. A tornado tossed the beloved 1886 covered bridge in Moscow, Ind,. into the Big Flatrock River three years ago.
Only six of the 19 original covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa — made famous by the love story "The Bridges of Madison County" — remain.
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Floods, vandalism, arson and neglect are also taking a toll. About 750 of the 15,000 covered bridges that dotted the United States in the 19th century are still standing.
But nostalgia is a luxury few communities or the federal government can afford these days. President Barack Obama's budget proposal for 2012 would eliminate 55 Department of Transportation programs, including the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program.
The program provides about $8 million a year in grants to repair or rehabilitate a dozen or so covered bridges — an infinitesimal portion of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Transportation Department officials said communities would still be able to apply for grants for covered bridge projects, but they would have to compete with other highway and bridge projects for funds..
Congress is just beginning to draft next year's budget. But with a new Republican majority in the House — including many tea party-backed lawmakers determined to shrink the government — what constitutes a federal expenditure worth keeping is swiftly being redefined.
"I love covered bridges," said Isabel Sawhill, an economist with the Brookings Institution, "but I don't think it should be a federal responsibility to preserve them."
David Wright, president of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, agreed that federal spending needs to be reduced.
"But I regard preserving things which are national treasures — all sorts of things that are national treasures — as an enterprise that one doesn't have to abandon," Wright said. "Maybe one has to slow it down. Maybe $4 million, not $8 million. I don't know. But not 'no money.' I don't think we've reached that point."
Other infrastructure needs
But even the county official in charge of the bridges of Madison County says other needs come first.
Todd Hagan, Madison county's engineer and head of the local covered bridge program, said Madison needs federal help keeping its roads paved more than it needs covered bridge aid. Paving expenses, he said, may force Madison to return some roads to gravel.
Without dedicated federal dollars, prospects for finding money for covered bridges are grim, preservationists said. Thirty-five states are forecasting budget gaps next year. The budgets of many of the rural counties that are home to covered bridges are also strained.
Private preservation funds for historic bridges are hard to come by, said Kitty Henderson, executive director of the Historic Bridge Foundation.
Covered bridges were built at a time when wood was plentiful. They are also better suited to the freeze-thaw cycles of the Northeast and Midwest than stone construction. Wood bridges will last a century or more if protected from the elements, which is why coverings with roofs were added. But, like any house or barn, they have to be maintained.
Often the coverings were painted to look like barns to encourage horses to enter the bridges, according to a website for Parke County, Ind. The county, with 31 bridges, claims to be the "covered bridge capital of the world." It once had more than 50 bridges.
There are eight covered railroad bridges left in the world, all of them in the United States — five in New Hampshire, two in Vermont and one in Oregon, Wright said.
A tourist attraction
While some covered bridges are still in use, others have been bypassed in favor of steel bridges. The covered bridges' main function now is to look scenic and attract tourists. Vermont's more than 100 covered bridges are a prominent part of the state's tourism websites. Parke County in Indiana draws over 2 million visitors to its annual covered bridge festival in October. Eight to 12 tour buses visit Iowa's Madison County each month.
Madison received $375,000 through the federal preservation program to install infrared cameras and fire detection equipment on its bridges after arson fires destroyed one bridge and another arson fire nearly destroyed a bridge.
In New Hampshire, Lancaster town manager Edward Samson also feels the tug of conflicting priorities. If Lancaster had to choose between fixing the Mt. Orne bridge and fixing a water or sewer line, Samson said, it's the water or sewer line that's going to be fixed. And almost every year, he said, there's some line that needs to be fixed.
That's one reason the town is applying for federal funds to fix the Mt. Orne bridge, Samson said.
"The only way we can afford to do that is to have assistance from other sources like the federal government," he said. "I know they waste money other ways, but I feel (the covered bridge program) is important enough for all that it serves and represents, not only for local travel, but also for the tourism part, which is huge."
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