A year after gaining national infamy as home to the “covered bridge to nowhere,” the Miami Valley this week is hosting a national conference on covered bridges that is getting new attention from budget hawks.
The Second National Covered Bridge Conference runs today through Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Dayton. It includes tours of area covered bridges, presentations and a hog roast and performance by Puzzle of Light at the Preble County Historical Society.
The roughly 200 attendees come from universities, architectural firms and government agencies such as the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Federal Highway Administration. The highway administration’s National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program is paying $89,700 to sponsor the conference and send four people.
David Simmons, conference program chairman and president of the Ohio Historical Bridge Association, said the conference will update covered bridge experts on the status of preservation and what research has found since the first such conference 10 years ago in Vermont.
He said Dayton was chosen as a host because of its proximity to unique bridges, including the 184-year-old Roberts Covered Bridge in Eaton “that is one of a handful in the country that are double barreled and it’s among the oldest in the country.”
Tom Schatz, executive director of Citizens Against Government Waste, said covered bridge preservation has long been a source of pork barrel projects — and the hog roast is a fitting centerpiece.
“There’s probably no intended irony in there, but undoubtedly the taxpayers will get it,” he said.
Program targeted for cuts
President Barack Obama suggested cutting the bridge preservation program, along with 54 other Department of Transportation programs, in his 2012 budget. But Congress instead increased the budget to $9.8 million last year.
Opponents of the covered bridge fund say transportation money should go toward making roads safe, and historic preservation should come from funds for tourism, historic preservation or maybe even the budget of the local community that wants to save the bridge.
“I love covered bridges,” said Isabel Sawhill, an economist with the Brookings Institution during talks on cutting the fund, “but I don’t think it should be a federal responsibility to preserve them.”
Simmons countered: “If there’s a larger public value in a structure, why shouldn’t federal money be used?”
“There’s not necessarily enough money locally to support those projects any more than there is to build a bridge across the Ohio River,” he said. “Nobody says, ‘Why doesn’t Cincinnati pay for that?’ But they do say that about historic structures.”
He said Ohio’s 145 covered bridges have something to teach modern engineers, who are learning that wood has benefits over other bridge materials.
“There have been new covered bridges built in Ohio,” he said.
‘Covered bridge to nowhere’
Greene County received one of the largest grants under the covered bridge program last year, bringing it national attention from conservatives such as U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Coburn dubbed the 136-year-old bridge on Stevenson Road in Xenia Twp. a “covered bridge to nowhere” because it’s not connected to any roads or a park and has been closed since 2003 when a concrete bridge was built 100 feet away.
Greene County Engineer Bob Geyer was among the bridge’s defenders, saying it is important to preserve history and that it attracts tourism dollars.
“To me, saving history is important because once it’s gone you can’t rebuild it,” he said.
He said the county hopes to construct a small park designed to allow people to stop and take pictures of the bridge. He said the same federal fund is paying more than $600,000 for the West Engle Mill Covered Bridge restoration, and he hopes to secure funds to fix up the Ballard Road Bridge on Old 35 east of Xenia and Jamestown.
The Ballard Road bridge, built in 1883, is open to road traffic but Ballard Road dead-ends at the bridge.
“I’m going to save what I got left,” Geyer said.
Conference benefits local economy
The convention in Dayton will feature tours of the Stevenson Road bridge as well as other bridges in Montgomery, Greene, Preble and Miami counties.
The tourism dollars will come in part from the federal government. And given the fiscal climate in Washington, some such as Schatz question whether a federal agency should be spending all of this money right now.
U.S. Department of Transportation officials say they have cut travel expenses by 30 percent over the last two years, and have relied increasingly on videoconferences.
Dayton/Montgomery County Convention and Visitors Bureau President Jacquelyn Powell said her office wasn’t involved in organizing the conference, but that they were pleased it located in Dayton.
“The folks that come to conferences stay in hotels, spend their money there, spend their money in retail establishments, spend their money on dining, that kind of things,” she said. “Every conference that comes into our community brings outside dollars in and that’s a positive for our region.”