A short time ago, a dear friend of mine approached me with a question. They were in the market for a new car and asked me whether they should consider an electric vehicle, an EV? This is a relatively simple question that pulled me into the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes. It became so complicated that I ended up preparing not one, but two spreadsheets to navigate the answer. And because it is so complicated, I thought it might be useful to try to break it down here.
Why Does it Matter?
The planet is rapidly warming due to the human introduction of CO2 into the atmosphere over the last 150 years. Currently, the world average temperature is more than 1 degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels. If we are to keep the increase to 2 degrees Celsius or less, we have to get to carbon neutral by no later than 2050. A 2 degree increase in the world average temperature will lead to droughts, floods, storms, and sea level rise that are unprecedented in recent human history. To not act now will lead to warming much greater than this and multiplied effects. Available modeling suggests that this future world will be a bad place to live. As UN Secretary Gutierrez recently put it, “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”
The US has historically been a major contributor to the problem, and as a leading democracy, we have the responsibility to lead in the effort. Emissions in the US come largely from electricity generation, transportation, and manufacture – about a third each. In the transportation sector, burning gasoline to power our cars has been the Number 1 problem. Hence, the need to electrify our cars, trucks, buses, trains, and ships. With planes, we need to fly less and decarbonize, probably through green hydrogen. Getting my friend into an EV pushes the needle in the right direction, even if that push is miniscule in the grand scheme of things.
The Old Rules
Three years ago, we bought a Nissan LEAF SV Plus. At the time, the only remotely affordable choices available to us were the Chevy Bolt, the Tesla Model 3, and the LEAF. For our efforts, we were rewarded with a $7,500 Federal Tax Credit and a State $1,500 rebate. This brought the cost of the LEAF down to around $30,000. The only requirements for the Federal Tax Credit were that less than 200,000 vehicles of that model were sold and that we had a federal tax liability of less than $7,500 in our annual income tax filing. At the time, the Chevy Bolt and Volt and the Tesla had reached that 200,000 sales limit and were no longer eligible for the Federal Tax Credit.
The New Rules
Ah, the good old days. In August, 2022, everything changed with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, known quaintly in our home as “the other IRA.” The new rules are quite complicated and haven’t really been well explained by either the Federal Government or the press. The Federal Government has been cautious largely because the specific rules for implementing the portion of the law that takes effect after January 1, 2023 depend on the IRS writing them. They are still writing ferociously, so the rules probably won’t be released until after January 1st. The press has done a poor job because it the law is complicated and there is no easy way to simplify it into a single short article. I am neither the Government nor the press. So as long as you are willing to take everything I say with a grain of salt, I will attempt such explanation.
Before and After January 1, 2023
January 1, 2023 is a critical date in the implementation of the IRA. Certain rules apply before then and other rules apply afterwards. There are a few elements of the IRA that transcend the pumpkin date of January 1, 2023. First, to qualify for the Federal credit, the vehicle has to cost less than $55,000 if it is a car, and less than $80,000 if it is an SUV, truck, or equivalent. Fortunately, many For EV’s, this is not necessarily a bad thing as the platform in a normal SUV generates a higher center of gravity. Loading batteries on the chassis lowers that center, so an SUV EV is naturally more stable than a non-EV.
Although the law excludes taxes and delivery charges from that limit, it does not exclude options. So, if you have an actual car with a MSRP of $53,000 but want the better audio system or trim, it will push the price past the $55k limit. For cars with a MSRP in the upper $40’s or low $50’, one wonders if this will give buyers some leverage on price as these manufacturers might find those cars sitting on the lot like forever, while less expensive configurations will fly like hotcakes, having their glove compartments stuffed with an extra $7,500.
The second major aspect to the IRA is that to qualify for the tax credit, your income has to be less than $150,000 a year if you’re filing as a single, or $300,000 a year of you are filing jointly. This will not affect most of the people I know, but it is a nod to the idea expensive EV’s for wealthy people should not be part of the IRA DNA.
Beginning in August 2022 with the passage of the law, the IRA imposes a North America vehicle assembly requirement. The vehicle has to have final assembly in North America to get the tax credit. Before January 1st, a vehicle assembled in North America can qualify for the full $7,500 credit. After January 1st, the North American assembly requirement qualifies a vehicle for a portion of the credit: $3,750. The other half is in battery manufacturing (see below).
Finally, the maximum credits are $7,500 both before and after January 1st. Credits for used EV’s will take effect after January 1st.
Before January 1st
Here’s where things get a bit hairy, especially if you need to buy an EV now. Before January 1st, the 200,000 unit sales cap remains in effect. So the Bolt and Tesla are off the table for a tax credit if you buy one before then.
Not considering plug-in hybrids, the following models could be eligible for the $,7500 tax credit if purchased before January 1st
*Ford Mustang Mach-e (orders are backlogged, so good luck)
*Ford F-150 Lightning (orders are backlogged, so good luck)
If you are wanting the tax credit, your choices are severely limited. Otherwise, there are a number of highly rated EV’s that are assembled outside of North America.
After January 1st
After January 1st, it’s a good news/bad news story. First the good news. The 200,000 unit sales cap is removed. This brings the Bolt and Tesla back into play. Secondly, used electric vehicles are now eligible for a $4,000 tax credit. To simplify this discussion, I am not going to delve into used vehicles. Another room and door in the rabbit hole. Another time, another blog.
The bad news, such as it is, is that the $7,500 credit is divided into two halves. The first half is over the final assembly being in North America. Of the cars and trucks currently on market, all of the ones above except the Hyundai’s and the Toyota are eligible for the $3,750 NA assembly credit. The other half of the credit is where the battery is manufactured. At least half of the battery must be assembled or manufactured in North America (for 2023. In year 2024 and beyond, that percentage increases). The Chevy Bolt and Bolt EUV, Cadillac Lyric, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model 3 and Y all have their batteries manufactured in the US, and therefore would have the other $3,750 tax credit. As of this writing, it appears the Ford Mustang Mach-e and Ford F-150 Lighting will have their batteries imported and would not have the $3,750 credit. However, Ford has been suggesting that it will supply some of these vehicles with NA manufactured or assembled batteries in late 2023. Which and when to be determined.
And then there’s the fine print. The IRS will be writing the rules over what cars, SUV’s, and trucks qualify for which part of the IRA tax credits. Final assembly in North America seems fairly straightforward, but establishing how to determine what is 50% of manufacture or assembly might be harder to peg. The rules for 2024 and beyond are also different as percentages of battery manufacturing and critical mineral sourcing in North America are increased each year.
If you were licking your chops over the $7,500 Federal Tax Credit, you might be a bit disappointed in the selection of vehicles that qualify in part or in total. However, these credits will last for 10 years under the current legislation and more models are being introduced in 2023, notably the Nissan Ariya, the North American-assembled Volkswagen ID.4, and the Chevrolet Blazer EV. The Ariya and Blazer are both SUV’s. The Ariya is manufactured overseas and won’t qualify for any Federal Credits. The Blazer is likely to qualify for both final assembly and battery credits, and is expected to be available in the summer of 2023. Manufacturing is in Mexico, so the assembly part of the tax credit is probably assured. I do suspect GM will do everything possible to ensure the Blazer EV also meets the battery standards for the other half of the credit. The Volkswagen ID.4 will be assembled in Chattanooga starting in 2023, so the assembly portion of the credit will be met. Unfortunately, only the smaller 62kWh battery pack, assembled in North America, will be available on NA assembled ID.4’s meaning the tax credit will be for $7,500 but only for a car that has a 208 mile range. Whether VW fixes this in 2023 or not remains to be seen (see below).
The Pennsylvania Rebate
In Pennsylvania, there is an additional rebate for EV’s, up to a maximum of $3,000. However, the income requirements and purchase price requirements are more stringent. Some who could qualify for the Federal Tax Credit will not meet the Pennsylvania income limits, which are set at 4x the Federal Income Poverty Level for a $2,000 rebate and 2x the Level for a $3,000 rebate. For a family of 3, that is $92,120 and $46,060 respectively. The vehicle has to cost less than $50,000. This rebate may be limited to the first 1,000 applicants. The median household income in Pennsylvania is just under $73,000, so many of our neighbors should qualify. Also, note that the Pennsylvania Rebate includes used EV’s, also set at $2,000.
More Rabbit Holes
The IRA is already affecting EV manufacturing behavior. Hyundai just announced a new EV and Battery plant in Georgia, with manufacturing to begin in 2025. GM is signing sourcing agreements for battery raw materials. As noted earlier, VW is moving some EV production to North America. What is clear is that the IRA has caught the attention of every car manufacturer that wants to sell EV’s in the US. The bottom line is going to be: either assemble in North America and build your batteries there, or, go head to head with manufacturers that do, but whose vehicles cost $7,500 less to the consumer.
Short term, I do expect a lot of weirdness in the market. As was during the chip shortage, car manufacturers may focus their production and delivery on higher end models until battery capacity improves. However, this will only work on the cheaper models. For models that have MRSP’s near or above the $55,000 or $80,000 pumpkin numbers, dealers may have to offer substantial discounts to bring the sale price below those figures. Otherwise, those models might sit on the lot for a long time as slightly less expensive substitutes are preferred.
What I told my friend, I will tell you. Unless you are desperate to acquire an EV now, it will behoove you to wait until after January 1st. If you have the luxury, you might considering waiting until summer, when other models will become available. The Ford Mustang Mach-e appears to be available for order now with delivery in 6 months, but if you can wait until late 2023, it might be eligible for the full $7,500 as they move battery manufacturing to North America. Cadillac Lyric orders have been filled for 2023. Selection and availability in 2024 should be better. But this is no solace for those looking to buy an EV now or in the near future.
Secondly, I haven’t talked about the LEAF, which we own and enjoy. Going forward, I cannot recommend it unless you are expecting to never take it on longer trips. The ChAdeMO standard DC Level 3 high speed charger on the LEAF is simply not going to be supported in the future in the US. The CCS standard appears to be the one that the Federal Government will support, as telegraphed in its infrastructure grant rules. All of the other vehicles mentioned above use the CCS standard, with the exception of Tesla, who has held to its Supercharger Standard (renamed the North American Charging Standard). Even Telsa is softening as it is now also offering a CCS adapter.
And lastly, make sure to see what’s in the final IRS rules and regulations, and possibly what the lame-duck Congress is going to do. There appears to be some jockeying around whether some companies might be grandfathered in on assembly and battery manufacture.
So, thank you Charles Dodgson for the verbal tools to be able to explain the current EV landscape. It’s a shame he isn’t around. I’m sure he’d have something wondrous to say.
Recently, the Commonwealth Court put to bed the proposal by PennDOT to toll 9 bridges across the state, including the I-83 South Bridge, AKA the John Harris Memorial Bridge. Politicians rejoiced. Like they were looking out for our interests. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc stated, “Today’s decision is a win for all Pennsylvanians, a win for all those who stood with us fighting this oppressive overreach, and a win for Pennsylvania businesses who were arbitrarily shut out of the process.” The total estimated cost of the bridges was around $2.2b. Tolling would have freed money to be applied to other needed PennDOT projects. To put this in perspective, it would have been enough money to replace around 1,000 plain vanilla bridges across the state, or about 1 of every 2-1/2 state-owned bridges currently in poor condition. The new Federal Infrastructure monies allocated $1.6 b over 5 years just for bridges. That money would just about replace about half of the 1,250 bridges that would be added to the poor condition group during that 5-year time.
Every year, PennDOT spends around $4.3b on highways and bridges. The percentages vary from year to year of highway versus bridge and PennDOT generally does not split out highway from bridge, so assuming 1/3 goes to bridges and 2/3 to highways, in a normal year, PennDOT has about $1.4b for bridge maintenance, repair, and replacement. Much of this goes to maintenance and repair, but to replace just the bridges that fall in to the poor condition group each year, you would need $500m. Through herculean efforts, PennDOT has managed to beat down the number of poor condition bridges over the last 20 years. The number of poor condition bridges is now less than half what it was. That win came at the cost of deteriorated roads. The headwinds for future revenue are strong, as the recent TFAC report lays out.
Telling the public that the end of the tolling scheme is somehow a victory for the motorist, or the public is a cruel lie. The politicians that are saying it know it’s a cruel lie. In the end, the $2.2b not available from tolling will have to be made up at some point. Today, there is not nearly enough money to meet all transportation needs, not even if the State Police are pushed away from the trough. (Don’t get me wrong, they should!) Every dollar spent on a needed project is a dollar taken away from another needed project. If our politicians were truthful, they would say something along the lines of, “Tolling is not the right way to find the needed revenue to fix our roads and bridges, but unless substantial revenue is raised, through increased taxes or some other fee system that will affect all of you, your roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate. You will see more congestion. You will see more car repair from bad roads. You will see more Fern Hollow Bridge collapses, or in lieu of collapses, many more closed and restricted bridges. Instead of a shared public highway system, it will be every man and woman for themselves and all of you will pay far more in the long run.” The truth is sometimes painful.
PennDOT is looking at the next decade of doing less with less. Perhaps now is the time to take a step back and take another hard look at PennDOT operations. I don’t mean the “push the peas around the plate” type of actions, such as halting employee training, out-of-state travel, nor even the $14m frizzen in studies that led to this particular mis-fire. PennDOT needs to take a cold, hard, look in the mirror and realize that needed funding is not forthcoming, that the Federal Infrastructure boost will only take them so far, and that in the current climate, just keeping the 18 cents a gallon Federal gas tax and 57 cent State gas tax would be the best one could hope for, let alone any necessary increases.
Having worked at state DOT’s for over 30 years, there are periodic waves of funding shortfalls. Most of the pain is endured by staff and popular but “deemed non-essential” programs. Engineers were put on this earth to design and to build. Not doing that kills them psychologically and emotionally. Yet, it is precisely those starvation times that yield the most innovation and change. And in those moments, the engineers and planners can be forced to rethink their most sacred assumptions.
In PennDOT world, nothing is more exhilarating than a new bridge or road opening. It’s catnip for the politicians. Its newness dazzles. It is a benchmark sense of accomplishment for the design team. Everyone is happy. Much less exhilarating is rehabilitation and repair. There are no ribbon cuttings. Its sameness is unimpressive. In this new funding environment, PennDOT will forego the new bridge for the rehabilitated bridge. It will need to squeeze life out of the end of use-life. It will need to be creative in repair and rehabilitation options. And it will need to accept more risk of the slowly deteriorating system. Civil engineers hate risk, bridge engineers hate risk even more. And because of this very strong ethic, you rarely read about a bridge collapse. Fern Hollow is news, big news, because collapses like this are so rare. It is in the same league as commercial airplane crashes. To mitigate the risk, PennDOT will need to make more frequent inspections and use new and less proven technologies to detect weaknesses well ahead of time.
Rethink the network.
In the last 50 years, we have all grown accustomed to being able to get into our car and drive in any direction and get to our destination in the same amount of time. True convenience. The highway network has relied on these redundancies for decades. Going forward, we will have to rethink those redundancies, so that sometimes you have to go in a one specific direction to be able to get to your destination and it might take longer. Bridges especially may be subject to permanent closings or removal rather than replacement. This will lead to longer travel times, and in those cases where EMS is needed, there will be health and life consequences. However, this is the price we as a society will have to pay because we are not paying sufficiently into maintaining a good highway and road system.
Challenge traffic and capacity assumptions.
This is the hardest lift. Baked into PennDOT thinking is the assumption that congestion can only be relieved by adding capacity. This is a core assumption with the I-83 South Bridge project. The current bridge has 7 lanes of traffic. The proposed bridge(s) has 10 lanes of traffic, which is consistent with the I-83 corridor plans near Harrisburg. The Environmental Assessment suggests that the additional 3 lanes will alleviate traffic across the bridge. However, time after time, adding capacity induces demand and in a few short years, the congestion is as bad as it was before construction. Needless to say, even granting that a new I-83 bridge is needed, a 10-lane structure is going to be more expensive than a 7-lane structure. Possibly much more expensive. It may be time for PennDOT to acknowledge and challenge the core assumptions in adding capacity to address congestion and start looking at ways to reduce demand in the existing system. Ultimately, it may be less expensive to get cars off the road – in many cases single-occupancy-vehicles (SOV’s) – than building out. The existing methods for doing this include improving mass transit and creating incentives for carpooling, among other ideas. Certainly, the $5.00 a gallon gas we are currently experiencing is doing some of that work for PennDOT right now.
It is a truism that engineers are good with things and bad with people. I have the highest respect for PennDOT engineers in their strong suits- designing and building things. I have less confidence in those areas of social science and social engineering, that require PennDOT to understand what people do and why and how to change their behaviors. The funding desert that PennDOT is entering must force its leadership to become more proficient at these arenas, and god forbid to hire or contract more experts in these fields and give them the necessary authority to inform important planning decisions. In the language of continuous quality improvement, there is never enough money to address all the needs, never. But there is always enough money to do better.
We are all in this together. And if we don’t find solutions together, we will all suffer together. John Donne said it best.
In recent years, a new type of article has appeared in the popular press – the EV Road trip. Journalists grab an EV, scope out a longer road trip, and blog about what happens. Even I have succumbed to the trend, describing our trip to Indiana (PA) last summer. These articles can be useful. The biggest fear from the public regarding electric vehicles is the ability to make an EV work on longer trips. This is critical to solve if a family is to make an EV its only vehicle. Bundled up in this question are questions about range, and charging on the road.
Most of these articles allow a future EV user a way to envision longer trips. The more honest of these point out weaknesses in taking these kind of trips, but offer some work arounds. Then there’s the recent blog by Rachel Wolfe that appeared in the Wall Street Journal (June 4-5,2022), titled, “2,013 Miles. No Gas. Many Hassles.” A friend of mine shared the print version of it with me. It can be found at the WSJ. If you aren’t currently a subscriber or don’t want to buy your way past the pay wall, I’ve scanned and posted the article here. (I usually read my articles on line, but here it was handy to have the actual paper copy to work with.)
Ms. Wolfe made many mistakes on this trip, both in planning and in choices on the road. The subtitle for the article is, “Our reporter drove from New Orleans to Chicago and back to test the feasibility of taking a road trip in an electric vehicle. She spent more time charging it than she did sleeping.” I would like to take this blog to deconstruct her trip. It should have gone better, but I am satisfied that her suffering was deserved. As a traveler, she made mistakes of commission. However, as a journalist, she made mistakes of omission. Her piece could have been instructive and useful to explain how managing an EV on a road trip is different from managing a fossil-fueled vehicle. Instead, it reads like a silly road trip gone bad, a cross between Lucille Ball and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. (Sorry. My old brain doesn’t work like it used to.) A cross between Amy Schumer and Bob and Ted.
Mistake #1 – Not knowing what vehicle I am driving.
Early on, Ms. Wolfe proudly announces she snagged a brand-new Kia EV6 that she rented. The Kia EV6 was to provide a range of 310 miles. Knowing the range of your EV is critical basic information. All, I repeat all of your trip planning is based on the range of the vehicle. It sets your stops, your charging, etc.
Later on in the article, Ms. Wolfe demurs that her Kia EV6 model might have had a 250 mile range instead of 310. The information on Turo might have been unclear. It just lists the vehicle as a Kia EV6. However, there are 3 different ranges depending on the trim choice. The basic Kia Light with RWD has a stated range of up to 232 miles. The All-Wheel Drive Wind has a range of up to 274 miles. The Rear Wheel Drive Wind has a range of up to 310 miles. All EV owners can state the listed range of their vehicles from memory. They also have it tattooed on their arms. They can also tell you the actual range of the vehicle under any condition you would name, whether it be winter or summer, dry or raining, highway or local driving, etc.
Given the troubles Ms. Wolfe had with range issues, I find it startling that she, a journalist, never nails down which model she had and why it mattered. Her only response to Turo and the vehicle’s owner was ”The car is super reliable, efficient and beautiful. (The photos don’t do it justice!) Christian is wonderful and available to answer any questions”
To put this matter in some perspective, Ms. Wolfe currently owns a 2008 Volkswagen Jetta. Ask her if it would matter to her if she had a 2009 Jetta but didn’t know if it was a Model S, Model GTI, or Model TDI? The first takes regular gas, the second premium, the third diesel.
Mistake #2 – Not starting my trip with a full charge.
Her first day’s final destination was Nashville, and she had a dinner appointment. Let’s say 7:00 PM. She’s going through Meridian, MS. Google says this is an 8 hour trip with 532 miles on the road. If you were 100% committed to making tracks, you would likely need to leave NOLA no later than 9 AM. If you wanted a more leisurely trip, you would need to leave earlier. Regardless of the fuel source, you would not want to be burdened with a partially filled tank to begin.
If you owned an EV, you would always start any lengthy trip with a full charge if you could. Meridian MS is 198 miles away. Even if you had the Light trim Kia, you should be able to make it without recharging. Instead, Ms. Wolfe adds a wasted 40-minute stop in Slidell.
Mistake #3 – Not knowing how my driving habits affect range.
All EV owners know that the advertised range for any EV is aspirational. JUST LIKE THE ADVERTISED RANGE FOR GAS-POWERED CARS! Why would anyone assume that EV manufacturers are more virtuous in their advertising than regular manufacturers?
Driving in April, it is unlikely that Ms. Wolfe needed much in the way of climate control, so the primary determinant of her range would be highway driving. Yes, driving at 80 mph will hammer range down, compared with driving the speed limit. This is also true for gasoline powered vehicles. I’m not saying the Ms. Wolfe drove over the speed limit. It’s just that most of us do. As a rule of thumb, you should probably presume that your actual range will be 40-50 miles less than the advertised range, especially on highway driving. This is where the particular model of Kia comes into play. If she had the base model, she would likely have expended most of her practical range. If she had the Wind RWD version, she would have about 60 miles range left.
Mistake #4 – Not knowing the implications of the charging locations selected.
All EV owners thoroughly research their charging stops before the trip, making sure the station has the format you need (CHADEMO, CCS, TESLA), how fast the charger operates, and most importantly, is it still in service today? Because there is no single standard of performance for a high speed (Level 3) charger, you do get situations like Ms. Wolfe’s in Meridian where the High Speed Charger at the Kia Dealership leaves much to be desired.
EV owners also look for a Plan B charger in case the planned charger has issues. Unfortunately, it looks like Meridian has only one acceptable high speed charger. Specs on that charger can be found at Plugshare as well as other apps. It clearly lists the charger as only putting out 19-20 kw which is not really the high speed Level 3 performance you need.
To simplify the discussion, we will presume Ms. Wolfe had the Wind RWD trim level with the 310 rated range. She has used 198 miles already and would need that remaining buffer. Her next stop is Birmingham, which is 145 miles away. Multiply by .359, carry the 1. This translates to needing 49 kWh added to get to Birmingham. Note: If you cannot or will not do math nor can find someone to do it for you, then taking an EV on trips is not for you.
All of these questions should be answered before getting into the car. That is why planning is so important for EV trips. The requirement for good planning is driven by the general lack of suitable charging stations outside of major metropolitan areas.
Back in Meridian, Ms. Wolfe needs enough range to get to Birmingham. The 49 kWh she needs to get to Birmingham will take 2 hours. A good time to have lunch. There are a couple of eateries 10-12 minute walks from the Dealership, all nested in the interchange area. Functional but not destination quality. If it was important to get to the center of town for lunch, then you would need an Uber or Lyft.
The Kia dealership is logically where almost all dealerships are located, off the interstate in the soulless wasteland of a miracle mile or interstate interchange. Google maps will tell you this without getting out of your chair. So, Ms. Wolfe’s 30-minute walk into town would have easily been predicted and known. Rather than complain about the industrial landscape she had to navigate, maybe she should have taken a slightly deeper dive into why there aren’t more high level charging stations in downtown Meridian?
If she had left at 8 AM, she should have been back on the road at 1 PM.
Meridian to Birmingham is 145 miles away. Estimated travel is 2 hours 12 minutes. She could expect to pull into the Birmingham Mercedes Benz dealership around 3:30 PM. Nashville will be the next stop, which is 200 miles and 3 hours away. The DC charger at Mercedes Benz is faster, rated at 62.5 kW but demonstrated at 60 kW recently. The Kia will take up to 1-1/2 hours to charge. Following Ms. Wolfe’s lead, one would be headed to Nashville by 5:00 PM and arrive in Nashville by 8:00 PM. A bit late for dinner. Maybe she should have left by 7 AM? I haven’t made the trip. I am still sitting in my chair, but I know this. Why don’t she?
Mistake #5 – Not taking full advantage of the hotel charger
Long distance EV travel of more than 1 day leans on the availability of an overnight charger. This way, every morning you can start the trip with a full charge. Generally, at least for now, there is no additional cost for the Level 2 plug as long as you are a guest. Ms. Wolfe appears to have defeated her charging regimen by not having the Kia plugged in for enough hours overnight to fully charge. According to the manual, you need about 8-9 hours. Pulling into Nashville after midnight certainly didn’t help.
Mistake #6 – Not making realistic plans.
Ms. Wolfe noted that she expected to get from Nashville to Chicago in 7.5 hours. The Google trip planner has the fastest route at 7 hours 8 minutes for the 474 miles. Google trip times do not account for any stops or for lunch, or for weather or traffic. Why would Ms. Wolfe expect to get from Nashville to Chicago in 7.5 hours?
On Day 2, she lists 3 stops to charge. Clarkesville IN is 2 hours 48 minutes away in 179 miles. Add 25 minutes for charging in Clarkesville, then back on the road. Clarkesville to Indianapolis is an hour and 41 minutes for 110 miles. Again, she can charge in 25 minutes at the Walmart, but since it’s after 1 PM she can put the car in the charger and grab a bite. If she had left at 8 AM, she could have been back on the road at 2 PM, on toward Chicago, 3 hours and 183 miles away. In principle one should be able to pull in to the Windy City around 5 PM, making the trip in 9 hours. This is a bit more than filling at a station, but only if you don’t make rest stops. It would not be 12 hours as stated.
Mistake #7 – Handling contingencies poorly added to poor planning.
There is no logical explanation for why she had only 180 miles range coming out of Chicago on Day 3. I doubt an explanation is forthcoming, but she surely could have reached the Effingham IL station. Effingham is 210 miles away. Well before Effingham, the Kia will spurt out data in real time regarding remaining range, efficiency, etc. It is highly unlikely that blowing through range and being unawares should happen. Again, every EV owner keeps on eye on those numbers and will use one of several apps to make sure they don’t get stranded or in a jam. When push comes to shove, EV owners will alter their driving habits (drive slower).
The Firefly Grill in Effingham provided the juice and a hot meal. Noted in the Plugshare report, but not the article. Ms. Wolfe, at least could have given a shout out to the restaurant.
Effingham to Minor MO is 185 miles. No explanation why Ms. Wolfe could not make it there. (Although she actually did.) There is literally nothing in the literature linking tornados with EV range. Ms. Wolfe’s narrative breaks down here as on one hand, she didn’t have the range to get to Minor, but doesn’t show the alternative charging station on the map. It seems a bit jumbled. I presume she got Memphis and then on to NOLA. A telling comment is near the end of the article.
“I’ve failed to map out the last 400 miles of our route.”
No wonder Mack is upset.
One gets the feeling the tone of the article is that the Gods and electric vehicles are out to get Ms. Wolfe. Many bad things happen to her. Some good things, too, but these are underreported. Much of the bad things that happen to her and her riding companion are due to her bad planning, lack of research and frankly lack of thinking this out in advance. She apparently had a miserable trip, which was deserved.
As a journalist, Ms. Wolfe has an obligation to WSJ, her readers, and even to Mack, to not only lay out what went wrong, but what could be done about it. I do not wish to diminish the current shortcomings in the charging network as they are numerous. I do not wish to diminish the shortcomings in the current selection of EV’s on the road, nor the charging standards they use, nor the range, as they are also numerous. However, driving an EV on trips is not the hell-scape that Ms. Wolfe makes it out to be and as a journalist she should know better. I would have preferred that she would have shared some teachable moments.
You simply cannot treat an EV exactly like a gasoline powered vehicle. There are not charging stations at every corner and it still takes 30 minutes to an hour to fully charge an EV if you can find a high speed DC charger.
Knowledge is power. Owning an EV vehicle for distance driving requires that you are a good trip planner. You have to take advantage of what is available to you. You might need to adjust your trips, your times, your stops to make it work. Eight times out of 10, you probably can.
Part of this planning is always having a plan B in case things go wrong, i.e., you have miscalculated range. This is one of the differences between an EV and a gas powered car. If you run low on gas, you can find a convenient if pricey service station. If you run out of gas, AAA will come and put a splash in your tank, enough to get you to a nearby filling station. This happens many times a day across the USA. AAA reports something like 600,000 instances a year. With an EV, AAA won’t come by and give you a charge. They’ve discontinued that service some years ago. They will tow your car to the closest EV charger. Basically, if you run out of charge away from a charging station, you’re on your own.
Things like hotels with chargers become very important and could be the main decider of where you stay overnight, rather than 2 double beds or a king, or a fitness center. Secondly, it is usually included in the hotel fee. An overnight charge for a 75 kWh battery is worth $10 at home and $20 on the road.
You rely more on your apps, and not just one. No single app appears to cover all of the charging stations out there.
Ultimately, more high speed charging stations are needed out on the highways. It is not all that much of a problem to drive 3 hours and take a 30 minute stop during which you charge your vehicle and go to the bathroom and get coffee. It is a problem when your route has no high speed charging stations that meet your car’s standard within 50 miles of the planned stop. The latter is the norm throughout most of the US.
If you can make an EV work for your trip, take heart in knowing the cost per mile is going to be a third of that of a gas-powered car. Even if you are paying $0.25 per kWh at a station and discounting any savings from hotel charging, your 2,000 mile trip will cost you $142. Ms. Wolfe’s trip should have cost about $100, with 3 hotel stays. The same trip in her VW Jetta would cost her about $370 today.
Most of the articles mentioned take the perspective of someone who is in the gasoline-powered world trying out the electric-powered world. What if it were the reverse? Here is a thought experiment loosely based on Ms. Wolfe’s trip.
Of late, we find ourselves sitting in front of the TV, watching the evening news when the next report on inflation comes on the screen. Of course, many of these are about gas prices, specifically prices that are skyrocketing, spiking, rising, surging, soaring, nowhere to go but up, pushing pump prices higher, record high, and on the rise. We are patiently waiting for the newsroom to get to the end of the Thesaurus (it’s “waxing” by the way) and then start over. Ritually, at the end each piece, we turn to each other and state, “Did you hear something? Gas prices, or something?” Ah, the insufferable smugness of being. We are just bad people. We are also EV owners.
In 2019, Linda and I purchased a new Nissan Leaf, Model SV Plus, which I have reported on numerous times.
For the last 2-1/2 plus years, the Leaf has been our main car, for which we have motored over 23,000 miles. Motored is the right word, as the Leaf doesn’t have an engine; it has a 160 kw motor that still manages to produce 214 hp. Our driving experience hasn’t changed since my 1-year review. The efficiency and range hasn’t changed. If anything, we’ve settled into a normalcy where we generally don’t think about the fact it is an EV.
One of the striking features of the Leaf is how quiet it is when riding. No engine noise, just wheels turning and the wind outside. It holds us, our groceries, and any additional passengers.
The heat and A/C works well. It draws on the battery a bit, but not as much as you might think, perhaps 4%. The blind spot monitoring safety features work well, but we rarely use the intelligent lane intervention system. The E-pedal system acts as an internal braking system. Many times, you don’t apply the brake to come to a full stop.
Cost to Own
Maintenance of the Leaf has been simple. For the 3 years we’ve had it, we’ve put in windshield washer fluid, check the air in the tires, and occasionally run it through the car wash. This last time, we needed to change the brake fluid. Like all modern new cars, the tires will be lucky to get to 30,000 miles, so that will be our next big investment. To date, we have had no repairs, although we did buy a $30 gizmo to disable the automatic door locks when the car is moving.
Inspection has also been simple. We get our inspection sticker, but do not need or get an emission sticker, which runs about $30. No oil change either. Over 3 cycles of inspection and scheduled maintenance, our total cost has been $348.
Fuel costs are low, compared with gasoline-powered vehicles. Since we bought the Leaf, our overall mpg-e is 128. Compare that with an average mpg of 24.9 for all new 2019 vehicles. On paper, that’s over 5x as efficient. If we modeled a new 2019 gas car, say a Volvo S60, along with the 2019 Leaf, for the same number of miles and the same energy costs – electricity versus gasoline, the total Leaf fuel costs are $926. The equivalent gasoline costs for the Volvo would be $2,928. Gas prices have risen dramatically. If we were to project current gasoline prices ($4.80 a gallon) for the entire year, our estimated 9,000 miles for 2022 would cost over $1,700 in gasoline, and less than $380 for electricity for the Leaf. This $380 includes the $0.017 per kWh in alternative fuel taxes owed on electrics.
Range and Road Trips
We’ve managed a few longer range trips, to BWI, to Indiana, PA, but generally use it locally for errands and shorter trips. The biggest limiter to more and longer trips is frankly the availability of charging stations, either Level 2 chargers at the hotel we would be staying or a Level 3 charger on the highway. The Level 3 chargers are critical for road trips as they have the ability to provide 80% charge in 30 minutes. Level 2 chargers take 5-10 hours to do the same. That the Pennsylvania Turnpike has so few Level 3 chargers at its rest stops is simply nuts. Of the 17 service plazas only 5 have non-Tesla chargers and all of these are near Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Eleven plazas have dog walk areas, so we know the PTK priorities. (Imagine if only 5 of the service plazas had gas pumps?)
In Central Pennsylvania, the situation is worse. In Cumberland County, there are four Level 3 chargers that are not Tesla proprietary, five in York County, two in Adams County. None in Perry nor Juniata Counties. Then again, Cumberland (431), York (588), Adams (120), Perry (35), and Juniata (6) have a grand total of 1,180 registered electric vehicles. All of Pennsylvania has just under 23,500, which represents 0.2% of all registered vehicles.
Going west on the Turnpike, the first Level 3 charger is at Bedford, off the Turnpike, 102 miles away. Going north to State College on US 322, there are none until you get to State College. On US 15 to the New York State line, there are no Level 3 chargers. Statewide, there are over 550 Level 3 chargers, but 2/3 of these are for Tesla only. More EV purchases would likely yield more charging stations, but availability of existing charging stations is one of the main reasons people don’t buy EV’s. A true chicken and egg situation.
The Infrastructure Bill is lauded for providing $171 m EV charging funding for Pennsylvania over 5 years, and $5b nationwide. No one is reporting how many Level 3 chargers will be installed. This does not bode well, as typically it takes $50-100,000 to put up a Level 3 charging station. Napkin math suggests if 25% of the funding will go to Level 3 chargers, which runs $80k per (the funding requires a 20% match), you would have 53 more Level 3 chargers over the 5 year period. Barely a dent. Even if 100% of the $171 million was devoted to Level 3 chargers and all of them were not Tesla proprietary, and the price was reduced to $50,000 each, you would only add 340 more charging stations.
Our 3-year old Leaf has proven to be a dependable and economic car that serves most of our needs. Its cost to operate is de-linked from the regular swings in gas prices. It does not produce emissions. Note: Transportation is responsible for a third of US CO2 emissions, so making electric transportation a major component of our lives is critical if we are to slow down global temperature rise.
We find the Leaf limiting insofar as we need a lot of planning to take longer trips, and in some cases, cannot get from Point A to Point B in it. We also need to pay attention to the range left in the battery so we do not risk being out of juice mid-trip. But that is a habit we have learned to adopt. We haven’t been stuck yet.
We are encouraged that our governments seem more committed to building out infrastructure, i.e., charging stations, and that we have noticed that hotels are beginning to install and feature Level 2 chargers that can refuel their EV guests overnight. Projections of sales of EV’s vary wildly but seem to suggest about half of new cars will be electric by 2035. That’s only 13 years away. And there is a lot to do before then.
Archaeology is an anthropology of usually dead peoples using systematic and often scientific processes to explore their material culture and the environment in which they lived. Archaeology at its best is a thought experiment in trying to tell a history of a peoples without written history or without the benefit of talking to them directly. It is unique among the humanities and sciences in this pursuit.
At the end of March, I took an opportunity to attend the Society for American Archaeology Annual Meetings, this year in Chicago, and the first in-person meetings in 3 years. Like many attendees, I felt that I had been left in a tin can for 2 years and had miraculously been released. Seeing human beings without the intervening screen was simply wonderful.
Having retired from PennDOT for over 3 years, and barely able to call myself an archaeologist, I still felt it was important to try to take the pulse of the profession. This was in order to better serve the membership of the Pennsylvania Archaeological Council, for which I am current president. That called for heavy listening. Although rusty, I think I was able to get an injection of zeitgeist. Two observations emerged. The first was hearing over and over again that there was a nationwide shortage of both archaeological field personnel and entry level field directors and principal investigators. These positions serve the cultural resources management industry, which is the tail that wags the dog for employed archaeologists in the Continental US.
This labor shortage is concerning because the recently passed Infrastructure bill is going to generate a number of constructible projects that will need to go through NEPA and Section 106. If Section 106 is held up because the archaeology cannot be completed in a timely manner, the consequences could be dire. Even when NEPA and Section 106 are not a problem, legislators take great pains to accuse these laws of holding up projects, rather than address the real root causes. The most likely outcome would be Congress figuring out how to neuter Section 106 so it cannot hold up projects. (No, Congress would not be tempted to try to address the problem, but to bulldoze their way to a solution.)
The second observation was more nuanced and impressionistic. I tend to look at the program in advance to pick out which of the many sessions would be worth my time during the Meetings. In previous years, we are talking about 8-10 concurrent sessions, tucked away in various places at the Conference Center. You can only be at one paper at a time and often only one session at a time because of timing and distance, so it is useful to choose wisely.
So, looking over the program, I notice a distinct lack of symposia related to the archaeology of the Midwest or Upper Midwest. Historically, the SAA host city has an abundance of sessions and papers on the archaeology of the host city’s catchment. It is natural and especially useful as it encourages students to attend the meetings and present findings. Paper presentations are an important piece in the development of an archaeologist as it incorporates synthesis, writing, and most importantly, presenting before peers in an organized manner in an always less than manageable time frame. Concurrent with the lack of mid-west archaeology was a preponderance of Mesoamerican sessions, as well as the Southwest, the rest of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the SAA having papers outside of North America, and Mesoamerica and the Southwest are always tasty and interesting culture areas (see below). Other parts of the world are always somehow interconnected with the US, whether it be someone’s origin story, or socio-cultural behaviors that can instruct us about what is happening here. But the lack of presentations using the archaeology of the US might be somehow connected to the current problem with a lack of emerging professional archaeologists skilled or interested in working in the US.
Observation 1 – Disappearing Archaeologists
I heard a lot of explanations for the lack of professionals currently, especially young professionals. And certainly, the shortages are not geographically everywhere the same. One colleague suggested that the Department of Labor was grossly underreporting statistics on archaeologists working in the field. The underreporting appears to be due to many archaeologists being named as historic preservation specialists, or principal investigators, or field investigators, etc., but not actually having the term “archaeology” in their title. The discrepancy in Department of Labor numbers seem to bear this out. For 2020, Labor lists 8,500 employed anthropologists and archaeologists total, with 800 openings per year. The job numbers cited don’t seem to match reality of field boots on the ground. The repercussions of this underreporting is to suggest to freshly minted BA’s and to undergraduates that archaeology as a profession is nothing worth pursuing.
Another thesis is that the profession hasn’t caught up with pay what people are worth. Some years back, you could hire a competent field crew member for $12 an hour and have them do your bidding. Today, I hear that the starting wage for field crew is around $20 an hour, and that the overall quality of personnel applying is wanting. For those of you under 40, give me a few minutes to tell you how it was back in the old days. Just humor me, OK? Anyway, once upon a time, the beer was cold, the food was hot, wait…let me get back on track. Once upon a time, the costs of education were manageable and tuition for graduate school could either be covered through assistantships or other part-time jobs. Many of us got our degrees with little or no debt. Imagine that. In addition, gaining field experience was more fluid. I never took a field school, but ended up teaching two. My experience was OJT, and included everything from full scale excavations on down. And I was paid, and I could live off that pay, as meager as it seemed. I consider myself very privileged in that regard, but I don’t think my experience was unique amongst my peers. Many of us used our field crew experience and pay to gain us entrance into the profession.
That model hasn’t changed in 50 years. However, the ease and ability for someone to follow that path has changed. College costs are no longer manageable. The (sometimes) benevolent but paternalistic field director has been replaced by a bottom-line company. Wages didn’t keep up with inflation or even with other fields requiring comparable skills. The brass ring at the end seems more elusive. I can fully understand why many people drop out of the pursuit along the way, whether by volition or simply by economic realities.
To recap the model: to build a good archaeologist, you need both education and relevant experience. At a minimum, an MA/MS is required. That’s 5-6 years of post-high school commitment out of the gate. And furthermore, you need sufficient coursework to understand basic anthropological concepts and culture history, and a few other skill sets like lab analysis and critical thinking. The relevant experience is also important. By Secretary of Interior Standards, you need at least one year of combined experience and another year of supervisory experience. So, at a minimum, that’s another two years. Do the math. If you are an 18-year old looking to go into archaeology as a profession, if everything goes perfectly and you have no holes in your resume, you will be at least 25 before you are handed your union card. And for a starting wage of maybe $48k a year?
Clearly, paying people more may address some of this. But fulfilling the time commitment is more difficult to solve. Field schools tend to be too short to provide the repetitive behaviors needed in the field. In this, archaeology is very much like a trade, rather than a profession. Field schools also are expensive and takes away earnings from a student who might otherwise be working. (Again, money may address this as well as some programs are beginning to pay field school students.) CRM fieldwork tends to be more and more one-dimensional as companies are specializing activities. An entry level field crew member might have a steady diet of shovel test pits and never see anything more than a 50×50 cm square of subsoil at a time for a year or more. By analogy, this is apprentice-level work, and if you can’t move on to journeyman-level work, you just aren’t going to be that good. Certainly, agencies are getting smarter about investing in and paying for Phase II investigations and Phase III data recoveries, instead redesigning projects. Getting emerging professionals adequate and appropriate field time is clearly a problem.
Yes, the model hasn’t changed in 50 years, but maybe it needs to change.
Observation 2 – Disappearing Archaeology of North America
Running an emerging professional through the gauntlet of education and training isn’t the only problem. The “model” is predicated on this “archaeologist-in-training” having an MA with the necessary coursework and focus. Implicit in this education is working with the archaeology of a region where you might be working in the future. Familiarity with the culture area is part of being a professional. Which is why Secretary of Interior standards require experience in North American Archaeology. Most state standards required experience in the archaeology of the region. Field experience in Mesoamerica, or South America, or Europe would not suffice. For our CRM archaeologists, experience needs to be in the United States.
Going back to that second observation over the schedule of sessions at SAA, is there a problem if many of the sessions are in the archaeology of areas not in the US? Going back over the SAA Program, there were 227 total sessions. Of these, 116 (51%) had a direct association with a culture area. This number is difficult to suss out, as the meetings are always a mix of theory, method, and culture history. My premise for assigning culture area was whether the session papers were built on archaeological data from a particular culture area or not. Not including Mesoamerica, sessions built on North American data numbered 44 (37%), and included historical archaeology and Southwest Puebloan themes. A little more than 1/3 of the sessions were relevant to potential CRM archaeology. The other 74 culture area-based sessions were majority American (Mesoamerica=29; South America=15; Caribbean, and Central America =4). There were 26 sessions outside the Western Hemisphere.
These numbers seem to hold for earlier meetings, as well. Going back to the 2018 meetings (2020 and 2021 not included because they weren’t in person), SAA held a total of 986 sessions. Of these, 483 (49%) had a direct association with a culture area. Again, sessions built on North American data constituted 39% of the culture area-related sessions. Mesoamerican sessions covered 24% (n=116), with the rest of the Americas covering another 16%.
Papers at SAA reflect both student and professional archaeological presentations. These are usually the first drafts of publications and are the best leading indicators of where the profession is with regard to research. The engines of this research are naturally the research universities that employ the professors and train the students. Pennsylvania has 4 premier research universities with respect to archaeology: Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and the University of Pennsylvania. Among them, they employ 23 faculty, plus a few adjunct professors. Including all anthropology students (not just archaeologists), these four are training 191 graduate students. I couldn’t assess individual areas of interest, so just assume maybe 1/3 are archaeological. Research universities have resources not available to smaller private or public universities, such as West Chester, Franklin & Marshall, or IUP. They include research laboratories, associated museums (such as the University of Pennsylvania Museum), and arrangements with other departments that have nice toys, such the Accelerator Mass Spectrometer at the Institutes of Energy and the Environment on the Penn State Campus. In some ways, any Department at one of these universities has the full resources of the university at its disposal. I could not estimate this reach, but do note that the annual budgets for these 4 institutions together exceeds $15b a year.
These four universities were very present at SAA, continuing a tradition going way, way back. During the 3 years of analysis (2018, 2019, and 2022), the 4 Departments authored or co-authored 149 papers or posters, many of which were by graduate students. For this, they are to be commended. However, of the 149 presentations, only 11 used archaeological data from pre-contact North America, and only 5 from the mid-Atlantic region. The math is stark. Not 37% or 39% of North American themed sessions, but more like 7%. For American archaeology, SAA papers show the direction of the profession. And as stated earlier, professionally qualified archaeologists in the US need US experience, which would be evidenced in SAA papers. Part of the shortage of emerging professionals in CRM could be laid at the feet of limitations on field experience, field school, and costs and time commitment of graduate school. But part of the shortage, at least here in Pennsylvania, could also be due to disinterest by the major research universities in producing archaeologists interested in Pennsylvania, or at the mid-Atlantic, or even North America outside Mesoamerica.
How we got here, I can only conjecture. I am fairly certain this was decades in the making. If you look at the engines of research in Pennsylvania archaeology since WWII, you see the Carnegie Museum, the PHMC State Museum, Franklin and Marshall, Temple University for a bit, and the State Schools, such as IUP, Clarion, California, West Chester, Millersville, and Bloomsburg. Unfortunately, the smaller schools are often relying on 1 professor, lack graduate programs, and a shortage of resources. At a particular university, often when the professor retires, the work ends. This is no way to build a sustaining program or build on research. In Pennsylvania, the major research universities have the means, but not the will. The rest may have the will, but not the means.
Mesoamerican Exceptionalism and the Archaeology of the Less Than
In academia, there is an eternal arms race over research, and that includes archaeological research. It revolves around publishing – articles in refereed journals and published books. Co-authorship is the norm, not just because of the increased collaboration among professionals but also the need to generate citations. Graduate students are pulled into this, both by their faculty advisors but also by the system that has them chasing fewer and fewer academic jobs available in the marketplace and the need to shine when applying.
Despite any claims to the contrary, sexy counts. Sexy in this context means archaeology of the high-falutin’ cultures, the pinnacles of social evolution, state-level society. While American Archaeology has always had a history with social evolution, a work by Elman Service (a sociocultural anthropologist) in 1962, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective (Random House) set the tone for prehistoric interpretation that lasts to today. In it, Service defines 4 stages of political evolution – bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states, with bands at the bottom of the evolutionary hierarchy and states at the top. On one hand, his development of the theory of how a chiefdom comes into being and how it works has been embraced by archaeologists. It provided a theoretical underpinning for the evolution of culture. On the other hand, the evolution from chiefdom to state level of political organization has led to a refocus by archaeologists, almost bordering on a fixation. As a consequence, early state formation, especially in the Americas, has become a staple of theory, method, and culture area, bringing Mesoamerica, the American Southwest, and Eastern North American Mississippian cultures to the fore. And the battleground for academic jobs.
For better or worse, these are the time periods – Formative, pre-classic, etc. – and culture areas that have absorbed much of the energy and resources, leaving other time periods and culture areas with what’s left. Other than the populating of the New World, early state formation has been the premier discussion topic, from the classroom to the bars to the Annual Meetings (in that order!).
As a consequence, for CRM practitioners who study and interpret what comes before them and not what is titillating and exciting to talk about in a bar with other graduate students, their career choice comes with two, not one, marks against. They are seen as sellouts to the profession, slumming for the government and only one step removed from the taint associated with CIA anthropologists. Secondly, they are rarely, if ever afforded a seat at the “fun” table hosted by the formative state experts or the peopling of the Americas folks. As such, CRM practitioners are relegated to the “Archaeology of the Less Than.” If you are a professor of archaeology at a major research university, why on God’s earth would you devote a scintilla of thought or steer your hard-won crop of graduate students to a career in CRM or to study the culture areas in your backyard? Why, indeed.
Until research universities are more engaged, and the model for development of archaeologists is revamped, I think we will continue to see a bifurcation into the academic moiety and the CRM moiety. This serves the profession not at all. And the time will come when the Department of Labor will be overreporting archaeological jobs, not underreporting them. And the remaining practicing archaeologists will be sitting in the bar wanting to tell how it was in the good old days, but there won’t be anyone there listening.
At a recent (unnamed) store that is part of a larger company, I found myself standing in front of a sign that held a land acknowledgment. Below it were a few items produced by Urban Native Era, an indigenous clothing brand. Normally, I don’t advertise commercial products, but I’ll make an exception here. The Land Acknowledgment was for the Susquehannock People, a group that was living at this place at one time. What struck me as curious was that only the Susquehannock were mentioned. Are they the end all and be all for a Land Acknowledgment?
You can look up Land Acknowledgments in Wikipedia, which will tell you the what, but not the why. There is some other on-line literature about Land Acknowledgments out there, but I will tender my own “why.” The history of our country and of Pennsylvania is complicated. Both have their roots in settler colonialism going back to William Penn and earlier. We are collectively uncomfortable talking about that history, because it is a story about taking lands belonging to others, usually by treaty, often with little or no compensation; and worse, often with no honest communication of what those political acts meant to the Tribes whose lands were being taken. Some of that lack of communication could be ascribed to the inherent confusion between two very different world views about land, but some of it seems to be merely convenience on the part of the settlers.
Our history tells us a lot about who we are today. If we deceive ourselves about our history, we block that road to self-knowledge. Most of us are currently getting a crash course in America’s history with regard to slavery. Our being able to grapple with its consequences, including current systemic racism, depends on our being able to acknowledge that what happened happened. Take the concept of “truth and reconciliation,” often coupled with a commission. The order is important. It is truth first, then reconciliation. Without truth, without acknowledging the true history, there can be no self-understanding and therefore no reconciliation.
Getting to truth and reconciliation takes time and work. You don’t click your heels three times and find that all is well. We elected Obama and promptly decided that racism had ended. Mission accomplished. Land Acknowledgments are baby steps toward truth in history, literally the very least an organization can do to move the conversation toward a fuller discussion of our collective histories. I think they should be encouraged, but only as a first step. But if it is the only step, then it becomes performative. If it is to be used as a first step to meaningfully excavate our histories and get to truth and ultimately reconciliation, some effort should be put into being accurate with that acknowledgment. Again, the Internet offers us a smorgasbord of examples for specific instances, and some generic rules for creating a Land Acknowledgment. Like any good reference book, the Internet is useful, but not complete. People need to do their homework.
What are the ground rules for a Land Acknowledgment? OK, it needs to point to Indigenous Peoples. But which ones? If not all of them, which ones? The above-referenced store had chosen the Susquehannock Peoples, having gone to a reputable web site that provides such information. What we know about the Susquehannock is that they moved into South-central Pennsylvania around 1550 AD, having likely migrated from the upper Susquehanna River Drainage in what is now New York. John Smith of Jamestown fame most likely met with members of the Tribe in 1608. Archaeology and history of the Susquehannock have them living near the Susquehanna River for the next 100 years. By 1700, members of the Susquehannock had settled at Conestoga Town, living there until 1763, when the inhabitants of the town were massacred by the Paxton Boys. OK, so Susquehannock Peoples were here. Check. Is the Land Acknowledgment complete and accurate? Are we done?
Another way to approach the question is in current government-to-government relations between Federally recognized Tribes and the US government. Tribal consultation is a key element of Section 106 consultation, and it the responsibility of the Federal Agency to figure out which Tribes may have interest in a Federal Undertaking. PennDOT/FHWA has accumulated a list of 8 Tribes that have ancestral interest in this area on which the store sits, including members of Shawnee, Cayuga, Delaware, and Tuscarora descent. As these groups were here, do we not also acknowledge them?
The full list of Federally-recognized Tribes is below:
Absentee-Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma
Delaware Nation, Oklahoma
Delaware Tribe of Indians
Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma
A third way to approach the question is to go back to the original land transfer. On October 11, 1736, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscarora Chiefs transferred this land to John Penn, Thomas Penn, and Richard Penn, proprietors of Colonial Pennsylvania. The specific wording of this deeding made it clear this was a no holds barred transfer of land:
…and therefore do acquit & forever discharge the said proprietaries, their heirs, successors & assigns…
…have given, granted, bargained sold Released and Confirmed, and by these presents Do, and every of them doth give, grant, Bargain, sell, release and Confirm unto said proprietaries…
…And all the Right, Title, Interest property claim, and demand whatsoever… TO HAVE & TO HOLD the said River Sasquehannah, and the Lands lying on both sides thereof, and the Islands therein contained, hereditaments and premises hereby granted and Released or mentioned, or intended to be hereby granted and Released, and every part and parcel thereof, with their & every of their Appurtenances…
These lands were acquired by the proprietors. The language of the deed was clearly written by lawyers, and not Tribal lawyers.
Payment for these lands consisted of:
I don’t want to undertake a 12-days of Christmas accounting, but considering that perhaps 2,500,000 acres were transferred (based on a visual of the Genealogical Map, in comparison to the 1,200,000 acres of the Walking Purchase), it doesn’t seem the payment balanced the transaction. Does the (approx.) £1,700,000 worth of the land in 1736 balance the 1736 prices of the above trade goods? The biggest single ticket item, the guns, might have cost around £3 each, or £135. A hundred hatchets at 2 shillings per would run £10, and so forth.
As understood by the Penns, it was a land transfer. Considering this area was not inhabited by any of the 5 Tribes (Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscarora) at the time, were they ceding lands that they did not occupy, or taking trade gifts from the Penns? Susquehannocks are not mentioned in the deed. Should a Land Acknowledgment include these 5 Nations, especially as this particular land deed is the official one? Should it exclude the Susquehannock Peoples? Does it change the specifics of the Land Acknowledgment, from land occupied by to land controlled by, to a misunderstanding, to what?
We could go on, but I think what we have so far is a store (perhaps) trying to do the right thing, going to the Internet, and finding a reputable website whose query returned the Susquehannock People to the question of what Indigenous Tribes were present. There are no more Susquehannock People to talk with about this Land Acknowledgment. Local settlers massacred them 250 years ago.
The actual history is much more complicated. And, we haven’t even gotten into pre-Contact Tribes that occupied this area for thousands of years, such as Shenks Ferry or Clemson Island Cultures. What does seem clear is that acknowledging only the Susquehannock Peoples flattens the story to the point where the act of acknowledgment appears incomplete and possibly performative. If this is an effort to start a discussion of the truth of that location, they have just begun to begin. I would invite said company to do more work to enrich the actual history of their store location, and share that story. They could certainly start by reaching out to all 8 Tribes who have already made their Land Acknowledgment. Baby steps can matter.
The Fourth Report of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission noted, “Indian Chief Strong Wolf came to many of the ceremonies in his native costume and spoke, adding much of picturesque interest to the meetings.”
The Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program has been part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and its prior iteration, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC), for over 100 years. In that time over 2,500 Historical Markers have been erected, with two periods of intense activity, one after the PHC’s founding in 1913, and the second after WWII, when the audience for these pivoted to the motorist driving Pennsylvania’s roads.
In recent years, there has been a growing understanding that objects such as monuments and statues are mirrors of the times in which they were erected and that many were placed for reasons other than the objective presentation of history, e.g. confederate statues. In place after place, a thoughtful review of these objects, their context and purpose, has resulted in reinterpretation, removal, or both. Historical Markers are not exempt from this scrutiny. In fact, their ubiquitousness compels us to holistically make the same kind of review.
This article considers the very different trajectories for Native American Markers and African American Markers. To scholars today, neither trajectory is flattering for the telling of Native American and African American stories, nor for the Commonwealth’s historical leadership that oversaw the program back then. For the 348 historical markers identified with Native Americans, most were erected before 1950. Of these, the vast majority reflect a narrative of settler colonialism through warfare, treaty, removal, and nostalgia for the defeated tribes. Almost none celebrate the actual Native Americans who were here on the land prior to William Penn. The vocabulary of these markers are necessarily patriotic, “American,” progressive, and often racist. For the 235 historical markers identified with African Americans, many deal with the themes of slavery and abolition, with a sizeable percentage not about African Americans at all, but what today we would call their white allies, specifically abolitionists. For the first 35 years of the Historical Marker Program, African Americans were completely absent. The first African American individual celebrated with a marker was not until 1961, for James Bland, celebrated (ironically) as a minstrel song composer. Since then, the PHMC has moved in fits and starts to try to correct this imbalance with very mixed results. This article does not cover other (mostly absent) stories, especially that of women, who although constitute 50% of the population, merit 6% of the markers.
The PHMC has recently undertaken some new policies with regard to the legacy of Pennsylvania’s historical markers. For that they are to be commended. However, it does not seem nearly enough. An incremental approach may be practical, politically acceptable, and yield some results. If the Historical Marker Program is to retain legitimacy, and to serve its mission to commemorate and educate on the history of Pennsylvania, then a more proactive approach is needed. It will need to be comprehensive, require substantial resources, and may become as controversial as other recent attempts at restorative justice. To do less, though, leaves us with a history continuing to perpetuate an incomplete and distorted narrative of the Commonwealth.
Why Historical Markers, Why Now?
The last several years has been a time of reflection into our Nation’s History and in particular how we have expressed that history through monuments. As a measure of growth in our collective intellectual curiosity, we have moved from reading the inscriptions at the monument base and trying to figure out who was General So and So to deeper questions of why General So and So has a monument here and why it was erected in the year it was. In a way, this shift is making historians of us all. When reading these monuments as text, as artifact, sometimes we come away confused and disturbed. This has been especially true with the group of monuments erected 50-100 years after the Civil War, glorifying the ones that rebelled, not the ones who won, and certainly not the ones who defended the principles that have been enshrined in our Constitution as the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
Historical Markers are and are not monuments. Monuments are grand; they draw attention to themselves. Markers are small, easily passed by. Monuments become the centers of their own spaces. Markers are something you drive by, or in the case of city markers, something you walk by. Additionally, it is rare to see a monument to a tragic event or some scoundrel. Markers seem to be more likely to take the bad in with the good. Yet both monuments and markers are placed. They don’t just happen. Both monuments and markers tell a story, a history. And both monuments and markers are susceptible to the thinking of the time during which they were erected. Most importantly, who tells the story determines what we as consumers of history see and read and absorb, be it monument, statue, or marker.
In 2017, the PHMC Marker Staff initiated a process to review its collection of 2,500 markers, in response to events in Charlottesville. In September, 2020 the PHMC adopted a new marker policy and in December, 2020 issued a preliminary text evaluation report. Both are available on the PHMC web’s site. Some of the new policy is procedural and administrative, but there are a few important points that may represent a departure from previous practice:
The subject of the proposed marker has to have statewide and/or national significance. This appears to be a departure from previous conditions where markers could be locally important.
The review of proposed markers will be handled through an appointed panel, assisted by PHMC staff and guided by a Commissioner. The Commission will approve all new markers.
A process for revising and retiring markers is set out, also involving the panel, PHMC staff, and the Commission.
Finally, and possible most important, any resident of the Commonwealth can request the review of an existing marker for revision or retirement.
In the December, 2020 report, 131 existing markers were flagged as possibly needing change, divided into High, Medium, and Low Priorities. The 18 High Priority markers contain wording that many might find outdated, insensitive and objectionable. Medium Priority markers were flagged for ambiguous cultural references or lack of historical context. Low Priority markers may be factually inaccurate, and/or lack historical context.
Given the century-long history of the historical marker program, it is worth examining the accumulated detritus of historical thought and words that are seeded across the Commonwealth, both in time and space. My suspicion was that a close review of the entire population of 2,500 markers might, like a review of state monuments, reveal something discomforting and disturbing.
The focus of this analysis is limited to markers referenced by two keyword phrases: Native American, and African American. During this analysis, the term African American is used instead of Black to describe an American of African and especially of Black African descent (Merriam Webster). This is in keeping with the terminology used in the Historic Marker Program and does not imply any specific social or political agenda. Other descriptors, such as Black, will be used when the specific citation uses that term. Likewise, the term Native American is used to describe the peoples that were here in North America, prior to the arrival of European settlers.
A Brief and Truncated History of the Historical Markers Program
It is important to set a context for this review and analysis, which will require a dive into the origins of the historical markers program, its original intent, and some key moments in its history that set the course for what we have today. This history does not attempt to be comprehensive, nor does it attempt to duplicate or correct George Beyer’s 1996 article nor Robinson and Galle’s centennial review.
In the original 1913 enabling legislation for the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Section 4 charges the Commission with,
upon its own initiative or upon the petition of municipalities or historical societies, mark by proper monuments, tablets or markers, places or buildings, within this Commonwealth, where historical events have transpired, and may arrange for the care and maintenance of such markers or monuments. (p.4)
In the First Report of the Historical Commission of Pennsylvania, the Commission emphatically made the case for the importance of Pennsylvania history in American history.
Cut out of American history what these events stand for, and the part played in them by Pennsylvania, and one loses the real plot of the entire drama of American history. Pennsylvania historians have been too modest… to give just credit to the tremendous moral force which the State and its people have exercised in the development of the American Nation. We must call attention to the facts in our history. We must make known these facts by monuments and markers, as well as by books and essays. (p. 14-15) (my emphasis)
The role of markers is made clearer in the Second Report of the PHC.
The plan of the Commission, from the very outset of its work, has been to arouse the interest of the people in the section in which the monument was to be placed by having them take part in the work from the time of the application for the monument until its final dedication. This plan has been carried out in almost every instance. In many places the pupils in the public schools have been asked to write essays concerning the history of the region in which the monument was erected. In many of the services of dedication the pupils of the public schools have taken part. In every instance the exercises have been given much attention by the local newspapers. The educational value of these activities of the local committees cannot be overestimated. Attention was called, in the first report, to the lack of knowledge of local history on the part of the people living at the very site of historic events. In several of the places in which the Commission has erected markers, citizens have stated that they did not know they were living near such a place as that which was marked. It can be said with certainty that the people living at the places where markers have been placed know more about the history of their own community than they did before the marker was suggested. (p. 14-15)
From the outset, historical markers have been tied with teaching of history and connecting with the public. At the founding of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, historical markers were integral to their mission. By 1932, they had erected some 122 markers. Of the 2,508 markers erected between 1914 and 2019, interest in erecting markers has waxed and waned (Figure 1).
The Great Depression put a halt on the erection of historical markers, with only 5 more erected until after WWII. Despite the drying up of funding, the importance of historical markers remained central to the Historical Commission’s mission, relying on local historical societies and the Daughters of the American Revolution to provide points of interest deserving “the attention of posterity.”
Prior to WWII, the mode of marker was undergoing a significant re-evaluation. Several states, including neighboring West Virginia, New Jersey, and New York, had programs with metal roadside markers on posts, instead of the bronze markers embedded in large stones as was the tradition in Pennsylvania. Besides recommending close cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, on whose largess the PHC would rely for the costs of erection and maintenance, recommendations were made to work closely with other WPA agencies to conduct a systematic survey of all existing historical markers, whether privately or publicly erected, and a survey of historically significant sites and buildings that would be good candidates for a future marker program. With regard to the subjects of proposed markers, there was a recognition of a bias toward Indian, colonial, and Revolutionary sites. Full attention needed to be given to outstanding events and landmarks in the social and economic development of the Commonwealth, including sites, birthplaces, and homes of outstanding Pennsylvanians. With regard to who determined which markers were to be erected, it was recommended that the State Historian work with professional historians and authorities on local history, forming permanent regional committees. Finally, it was recommended that funding for this program should come from the Commission, even if requiring a special appropriation.
Shortly after the reorganization of the Historical Commission into the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in June, 1945, S.K. Stevens, under the Role of Executive Secretary of the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies, put out a call to Pennsylvania Historians to nominate historical sites for the newly established roadside marker program. The newly constituted PHMC put historical markers back front and center to its mission.
You might suggest the Golden Age of Historical Markers had arrived. With the support of then Governor Martin, by February 1946, the PHMC was able to contract for 500 historical roadside makers. Within a brief 4-year period, some 803 markers were erected, more than 1/3 of the current total. After a nod to economic tourism as a rationale for the placing of statewide historical markers, State Historian S. K. Stevens emphasizes the two real reasons for a historical marker program. The historical markers
will be a lesson in Pennsylvania and American history for both natives of the State and those who visit the Commonwealth. Each marker will tell part of the story of Pennsylvania’s past, and of the magnificent contributions it has made to building America. Each marker will recall to mind some great personality, an important incident in frontier expansion, the role that a city or town has played in history, a pioneer achievement in industrial enterprise, or something of the history of roads, canals, and railroads.
However, beyond educating the public, the markers served a more vital role, that of nation building. Having just completed a world war on which the American way of life hung in the balance, promoting the idea of America seemed to be on everyone’s minds.
They will not only see the markers in ordinary travel, but also will be better able to organize pilgrimages to historical shrines. The same will be true of historical and patriotic societies, and civic clubs and organizations. More Americans and more Pennsylvanians are going to become mindful of the heritage of Penn’s land and of the heroic enterprise and achievement associated with the building of a great State and the nation of which it is a part. From this standpoint, the markers will help to build a stronger Americanism and to establish a deeper faith in our historical institutions.
It is this third and final reason for a historical marker program that comes to be the legacy of many of the historical markers now standing.
This level of activity was not continued into the 1950’s, and numbers per year tailed off, until 1956, when no markers were erected (Figure 1). Slowly, and then more deliberately, the marker program regrew, reaching around 35 markers a year between 1999 and 2010. Since 2010, the numbers have again declined.
Native American History as Reflected in Historical Markers
In the First Commission Report, a special section is reserved for the History of the Indian in Pennsylvania. To this point, “In fact it may be stated that not a single state in the entire Nation has a more interesting, important and truly romantic Indian history than has Pennsylvania. And yet, there are few monuments or markers, relating to this period, in the entire state.” (p.15)
The Section closes with the following:
It (the Commission) recommends that the first direct legislative grant or appropriation be made for the erection of a proper monument at the scene of Bouquet’s notable achievement in defeating the Indians at Bushy Run in 1763.
That thrilling incident and heroic adventure is typical… it signalized the clash of warriors of two races, as Parkman graphically says, matched the steady valor of civilization against the fierceness and intrepidity of the red savage…We recommend, therefore, that the General Assembly make provision for the erection on this blood-stained spot, of a fit memorial to mark the conquest of the Indian on Pennsylvania soil. (p.16)
Within Pennsylvania history, the history of the relations between European settlers and Native Americans can be summarized as one of settler colonialism. Without going into an extensive historical or political review, the definition by Nancy Shoemaker is useful:
Colonialism is a foreign intrusion or domination…Settler colonialism is where large numbers of settlers claim land and become the majority. Employing a “logic of elimination,” as Patrick Wolfe put it in the American Historical Review, they attempt to engineer the disappearance of the original inhabitants everywhere except in nostalgia.
The colonization of Pennsylvania was completed in about 100 years, between Penn’s Charter (1681) and the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784). Within that broad sweep, you can break the relationship between settlers and Native Americans into different phases and methods of interaction:
Contact and Trade
Warfare, to include raids and battles
With respect to historical markers, you can add the concepts of elimination and nostalgia with the following categories:
Appropriation and erasure
Out of the 2,508 historical markers erected between 1914 and 2019, 348 are categorized as Native American. If the language above in the First Commission Report is not clear enough, the closer scrutiny of the subjects of these markers and the time when they were erected provides some insights into what the Commonwealth really thought about the previous occupants of what we now call Pennsylvania.
One of the first things to observe is the high percentage of Native American Markers during this first phase of growth, under the PHC. Given the objectives laid out in 1915 with the First Commission Report, it is not hard to see how Native Americans would be central to the telling of the Pennsylvania story. However, even during the post-WWII marker boom, the percentage of Native American markers stayed high, resulting in over 20% of the 800 markers erected (Figure 2, 3). After this second phase, interest in Native American markers drops off dramatically.
To take a finer look at the broad sweep of settler colonialism, Native American markers are subdivided into the following themes. Individual markers could have multiple themes:
Contact and Trade – commemorating events that signified early contact between settlers and “Native Americans,” and the subsequent trade that ensued.
Missionizing – It wasn’t just the Jesuits that came to North America to make Christians out of the Native American populace. Moravians, especially, sought to Christianize “Native Americans,” with the express goals of not only saving souls, but bringing civilization.
Treaties – throughout this history, the number one goal was to “legally” take land. Treaties that ceded land were the gold standard. Other treaties that created a temporary peace were OK, but only temporarily until the land could be taken.
Land – in some respects treaties could be considered a subset of Land. Given the fixation of settler colonialism to have legal title to land on which they lived, treaties are divided from land, even though the distinctions might not have been too great. In some respects, the narrative could have been divided between Land and Theft, given that the majority of treaties were fraud in a Hobbesian sense (see below).
Warfare, to include raids and battles – When treaties didn’t work, and missionizing didn’t subdue the resident population, then force became important. Going through the texts of the Native American Markers as a group, there is a lot of tap-dancing over who initiated which battle or skirmish. If the settlers started it, it was a battle and therefore worthy. If the Native Americans responded in kind, it was a massacre, savagery, etc. (We are reminded of the Declaration of Independence and the last “Fact” of King George’s tyranny: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”) With the wisdom and benefit of a hundred years distance from the original PHC sentiments and 300 years from frontier Pennsylvania, we can see this dynamic as unrestricted warfare between settlers and “Native Americans.” On the Frontier, Thomas Hobbes, not Carl von Clausewitz, is the clearer observer:
“During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.”
“To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.”
Removal – Settler colonialism can be reduced to: Take, remove, settle, repeat. Markers commemorate the movement of a Native American village out of the immediate area; these markers are the essence of settler colonialism.
Resettlement – the mirror image of removal. Many Native American villages were removed and resettled in Pennsylvania, sometimes on their own, sometimes under the aegis of Moravian missionaries (see above). The result is the same. Native Americans are now rebuilding their lives in a new place not their own. At some point, they are resettled out of Pennsylvania.
Appropriation and erasure – Allegheny County, Tunkhannock, Pymatuning, Kinzua. Should we continue?
Nostalgia – These Indians weren’t such bad folks, now that we don’t have to deal with them. See The Great Island text: “Many Indian nations have occupied the Great Island in the river just south of here. Trails led from the Genesee, Ohio, Potomac, and Susquehanna North Branch. Delawares and Shawnees stopped here for a time on their migration west.” Let’s just not clarify here why the Delawares and Shawnees were passing through.
Indian Trails – yet another form of nostalgia, but these are so common, they warrant their own sub-category.
Looking at the sub-divisions in the settler colonialism story, Warfare is by far the most common marker theme, followed by the Nostalgia grouping that includes Trail (Table 1). Removal and Mission are next, with Treaty and Resettlement following. At the beginning in the 1910’s, it’s mostly about warfare but the sub-group selections becomes more nuanced in the following decades. In the most recent decades, Warfare is not the subject of most of the markers.
The Native American category is being used as defined by the PHMC; however, this is inadequate to fully categorize the history of Native Americans. If we accept the premise that the role of historical markers is to educate and inform, as well as commemorate, just what is the message with regard to Native Americans? For the original Commissioners, William Sproul, W. H. Stevenson, George Donehoo, Hampton L. Carson, and W. U. Hensel, would it be anything other than putting up fit memorials to mark the conquest of the Indian on Pennsylvania soil? If this is the message, then we are commemorating the conquerors, not the conquered. Native Americans are not the agents in this story, but the objects of this story, not the subject but the object.
The most obvious examples are during the “French and Indian” and Revolutionary Wars. This marker is categorized as Native American:
The Surgarloaf Massacre, erected in Luzerne County in 1933:
Near this spot occurred the Sugarloaf Massacre on Sept. 11, 1780. A detachment of Captain John Van Etten’s company Northampton County Militia, resting at the spring, was surprised by a band of Indians and Tories led by the Seneca Chief Roland Montour. Those who perished were – Captain Daniel Klader, Corporal Samuel Bond, Jacob Arndt, Peter Groom, Philip George, Abraham Klader, John Kouts, James McGraw, Paul Neely, George Peter Renhart, Jacob Row, George Shillhamer, Abraham Smith, Baltzer Snyder, John Weaver.
Holding the language and slant aside, it is clear that Native Americans were the actors in this historical event.
However, this marker is also classified as Native American:
Brady’s Bend, erected in Clarion County in 1946:
Named for Capt. Samuel Brady (1756-1795), famed frontier scout and the subject of many legends. Near here in June 1779 — in what was then Seneca territory — he led a force seeking to redress the killing of a settler and her four children, and the taking of two children as prisoners. The force surrounded a party of seven Indians — apparently both Seneca and Munsee — killing their leader (a Munsee warrior) and freeing the two children.
Here the Native Americans are not the actors, but the recipients/objects of Brady’s force.
Finally, consider this marker, classified as Native American:
Fort Chambers, erected in Franklin County in 1947:
Erected in 1756 by Col. Benjamin Chambers, pioneer land-owner and founder of the town, who fortified his house and mill with stockade and cannon against Indians.
Here, the Native Americans are not only not the actors, but not present, except as an existential threat.
When you break Native American markers into subject or object groupings, Native Americans are actors in only 141 of the 348 markers (40%). Many of these are either in retaliation during war or in moving and removing their villages as a consequence of war and treaty. From the perspective of the settler colonial narrative, this is as it should be. To the degree that Native American-themed Historic Markers are the nostalgia portion of the narrative, one should expect during the fighting, treaty making, and removal, the Native Americans would be on the receiving end. In the nostalgia sub-group, they would be the subjects.
Looking at the subdivisions in the settler colonial narrative, subject versus object by decade (Table 2), you pretty much see where the Native Americans are actors and where they are not. After the 1950’s, when the number of new Native American markers is greatly diminished, you do see a small uptick in subject counts, especially where archaeological sites are recognized. But then again, from a marker point of view isn’t an archaeological site also nostalgic to a degree?
One visual way to compare the Native Americans as actors and subjects and Native Americans as recipients and objects is through word clouds. Word clouds for this analysis were created by accumulating all of the marker text in all of the markers in a particular category or grouping. When you look at the Native American subject word cloud (Figure 4) (using the online MonkeyLearn Word Cloud generator), phrases like Indian Path, Indian Town, Indian village come to the fore, as do the Delaware and Leni Lenape. Further down are the land agents of change – William Penn and Conrad Weiser (Table 3). Relevance is measured, using TF-IDF, a statistical measure that evaluates how relevant a word is to a document in a collection of documents. This is done by multiplying two metrics: how many times a word appears in a document, and the inverse document frequency of the word across a set of documents.
As object (Tables 4, 5), you can see the reinforced narrative of warfare.
In the Native American object word cloud (Figure 5), settlers, Indian Raid, Indian War, and Indian Attack are clearly relevant. The 20 erected markers for the Sullivan Expedition in 1929 – the sesquicentennial – do represent an anomaly on the word cloud. What is not an anomaly though is the emphasis at that time in the conquest of Native Americans in 1779 as part of a national story, not just Pennsylvania’s. Again, making the distinction between Native Americans as objects of settler colonialism and as subjects of nostalgia in that story, the word cloud shows more clearly than the tables, what is going on with the selection of marker subjects between 1913 and 1950.
On October 25, 1924, Chief Strong Wolf participated in the dedication of the Francis Pastorius, the founder of Germantown (Figure 6). The next year, he is at the dedication of the Famous Indian Walk Luncheon Place marker in Bucks County (Figure 7).
Throughout the 1920’s, Chief Strong Wolf regularly attended marker dedications. Who was Chief Strong Wolf? What can be gleaned from the records is that he was an Ojibwa Chief living in Philadelphia at that time. (This may explain the Plains headdress.) He was a WWI veteran and one of the leaders of the American Indian Association. Henry Shoemaker references that Chief Strong Wolf had taken a post-graduate course at U Penn. However, regardless of the man’s biography, for Henry Shoemaker, Chief Strong Wolf did “underscore the Indian connection” with early Pennsylvania History (p.43).
In the late 1920’s, the PHC also contracted with a Delaware Native American, Chief War Eagle, for marker dedications. The going rate was $15 per event, plus expenses. Chief War Eagle, whose English name was James Webber, developed a working relationship with Frank Speck of the University of Pennsylvania, and was likely the source for information on the Delaware as well as a collection of objects. For the PHC, Chief War Eagle provided a degree of authenticity at historical marker dedications, although his presence was requested for both the John Brady marker in Sunbury as well as the Lime Hill Battlefield Marker in Bradford County, both Revolutionary War-era conflicts between Native Americans and Settler Colonists.
Using actual Native Americans for historic marker dedications is a powerful teaching tool for settler colonialism that transcends both object and subject divisions, especially when added to a soup that contains Boy Scouts, the DAR, and the power of the State, as represented through the PHC.
African American History as Reflected in Historical Markers
African Americans are central to the discussion of Pennsylvania History, from contributions to arts and culture to the fact that African Americans built this country. If the state historical markers are to tell the facts of Pennsylvania history, then these markers must also talk of the African American experience.
Of the 2,500 Historical Markers in the Commonwealth, 235 are categorized as African American in the index, or about 9% of the total. As a rough representation of population, this seems about right. The 1990 census of Pennsylvania identified 9.2% of its population as Black. Before the Civil War, the African American population reached a peak of 2.9%, falling to a low of 2% after the Civil War and before 1900. After 1900, it has steadily increased. As a side note, the ratio of Freed Black to Enslaved was 2:1 in 1790, falling to almost exclusively Freed Black thereafter.
A cursory examination of the group of Historical Markers categorized as African American does show a bifurcation that may have some utility in the analysis. While some of the markers in the category are clearly about African Americans, other markers are African American adjacent. In 1947, a marker categorized under African American was dedicated to David Wilmont. The text reads,
“The great Free-Soiler, who began the fight on slavery extension with the Wilmot Proviso in 1846, lived in this house. Republican Party founder; its first candidate for Governor. He died here in 1868.”
You might argue David Wilmont was an early ally, and an important figure in the fight to prevent the expansion of slavery. Yes, the subject of that fight was abolition but the object of that fight was African Americans. Thaddeus Stevens, noted abolitionist, also has a marker. But the question is what is the subject of the marker? Is it African Americans, or non-African Americans supporting abolition or the underground railway, or, in the case of Alan Freed’s marker, which is also categorized as African American, in support of rock and roll, derived from Black Rhythm and Blues?
When we categorize a marker as African American, are we doing this where the African American is the agent, the actor, the subject in the history, or as we see here, also the recipient, the object of the history, and potentially tangential to the history? Another example: in 2005, a marker was dedicated to the Lombard Street Riot. The text states
“Here on August 1, 1842 an angry mob of whites attacked a parade celebrating Jamaican Emancipation Day. A riot ensued. African Americans were beaten and their homes looted. The rioting lasted for 3 days. A local church & abolition meeting place were destroyed by fire.”
Are we commemorating and remembering African Americans, or white violence toward African Americans? Does the category “African Americans” adequately capture what this marker is trying to say? Many markers have multiple categories, but for this marker, African American is it. One could argue the terminology for categorizing markers needs to be revised substantially. (This is particularly poignant when considering Native American markers.) If markers are commemorating the history of racial violence, shouldn’t they be identified as such? Remembering this event of violence is important, and to teach it as such is important. It is worthy of a marker. However, classifying it as “African American” really flattens the story. The categories do need to be reconsidered and revised.
In the analysis of African American-categorized markers, markers are divded between history where African Americans are agents, and hence the subject of the marker, and history where African Americans are either tangential to the story or only participating in the structure of the event. Take the Underground Railroad. In 1980, a marker was erected to Richard Henderson in Meadville. The text reads
“Born a slave in Maryland in 1801, he escaped as a boy and about 1824 came to Meadville. A barber, he was long active in the Underground Railroad. His Arch Street house, since torn down, is estimated to have harbored some 500 runaway slaves prior to the Civil War.”
Here an African American is the subject of the marker and an agent of this history. In 2002, a marker was erected in Indiana, PA for the Rescue of Anthony Hollingsworth. The text reads
“On June 26, 1845, this 12 year-old fugitive slave was captured by slave hunters. Armed residents surrounded the hotel where he was held & demanded his release, defying federal law. Judge Thomas White freed him in the old courthouse on this site.”
Is Anthony Hollingsworth the subject and agent of this event, or is it the white armed residents who are commemorated here? OK, there is no history without Hollingsworth, but even the name of the marker, “The Rescue of Anthony Hollingsworth,” gives it away. Rescue is the subject. Hollingsworth is the object. Like the Lombard Street Riot, the category language is too limiting.
In all, 55 of the 235 were regrouped as African American Object. 45 of these 55 were in Underground Railroad (n=23), Religion (n=19), and Government (n=17) (some are cross-categorized). Taking all of the marker text for the African American sub-group Subjectyielded the word cloud below (Figure 8):
The generator also produced a listing of terms by degree of relevance (Table 6):
Compare this world cloud to the word cloud generated by only considering the markers under African American Object (Figure 9, Table 7):
The most relevant word phrases (Table 8) for the larger African American Subject sub-group are, in order: underground railroad, first African American, civil war, hall of fame, and civil rights leader. For the African American Object sub-group, the most relevant word phrases are, in order: underground railroad, freedom seeker, rock and roll, abolition of slavery, and John Brown.
Digging further down, in the next 5 for the subject sub-group, you see: African American Community; Eastern Colored League; African American Women; US Colored Troops; and, AME Zion Church. Conversely, for the object sub-group, you see: Fugitive Slave Act; Curtin of Pennsylvania; Longwood Progressive Meeting; opponent of slavery, and underground railroad activities. The marker messaging does seem different between the two groups.
It’s no coincidence that the timing on these markers between sub-groups is telling (Table 9, Figures 10 and 11). First of all, there is exactly one marker in the African American category before WWII, the Whitefield House. 126 markers preceded it. George Whitefield intended to build an orphanage for negro children, but that work was never done as the 5,000 acre property was acquired by the Moravian Brethren. Long story short, good intentions and no results.
The early decades of African American markers are predominantly in the object sub-group. By the 1960’s this changes and most of the remaining African American markers are of African Americans as agents in history.
In 1976, the PHMC recognized that there may have been a problem with African-American historical markers (among other issues in the telling of African-American history). At the November 29th meeting, the Committee asked that the PHMC be informed that a general evaluation of the marker program’s inclusion of Blacks was necessary. They formed an advisory committee on Black History in Pennsylvania, which met for the first time September 16th. In 1980, and again in 1982, the Committee reiterated its desire for more markers for Black history. Indeed, prior to 1982, the Commission(s) had erected not 9% of its markers for African American history, which would be representative of the demographic, but 9, where African Americans were the actors in the story.
Friction continued between the Committee and the PHMC. Regarding the 1984 dedication of a marker in Chester for Martin Luther King, Jr., Committee member Shirley Turpin-Parham noted that:
There was some controversy over the text of the marker. She stated the word “protest” was later excised. She thought that it should have been kept in the text. She mentioned that the marker at Germantown commemorating the first anti-slavery protest used the word protest. She believed this contrast unfortunately left the impression that whites could and did protest, but that Blacks could not and did not.
In 1990, three of the Committee members, Charles L. Blockson, Stan Arnold, and Shirley Turpin-Parham, secured a grant from the William Penn Foundation, which financed the placement of over 60 markers in Philadelphia between 1990 and 1993. While this was an immeasurable gain in the visible presence of African American history, it was concentrated in Philadelphia, a point noted at the September 28, 1990 Committee meeting.
This entire discussion over the last section is not to denigrate the contributions to Pennsylvania History of people like George Whitefield, or a David Wilmont or a Thaddeus Stevens, or even Alan Freed. However, if we are a trying to represent a history of the African American experience in Pennsylvania, it may be appropriate to distinguish between events and people and places that have African Americans as the actor, the agent, versus those markers honoring those that today we might refer to as allies, or accomplices. The categorization of the current listing of African Americans (and other categories as well) needs a rethinking and reworking.
African American Representation by Categories
In general, the markers are categorized by different historical themes (Table 10). The three most common Categories are: Government and Politics, Military, and Business and Industry. African American Markers in those categories are 5, 3, and 2 percent respectively.
Markers are also categorized by finer-grained themes, such as Professions and Vocations, Entrepreneur, Invention, etc. If you examine African American representation within these various categories, there is a pattern. Some of this is intuitive, some less so. For example, within the category of Civil Rights, African Americans as subjects are 60% of the entries (see Table 11). You have Sadie T. M. Alexander, who was appointed in 1946 to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. You have Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington. Good trouble, right? C. Delores Tucker spearheaded the Commission on the Status of Women and championed the PA Equal Rights Amendment.
Other Categories well-represented by African Americans include Music & Theatre and Performers, Education, Sports and Recreation, and Religion. The Music and Performers category included notable African Americans such as Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday, and James Bland and August Wilson. It also includes the Dunbar and Freedom Theatres and the National Negro Opera Company. With the exception of James Bland, who was recognized in 1961 for minstrel songs, all in the group were recognized within the last 30 years.
The abundance of markers in the Religion Category reflects the importance of the Black Church in African American Life. Most of these are not for theological reasons, but the multi-dimensional nature of the Black Church, including Education, Civil Rights, Women, and the Underground Railroad. The large presence of African Americans in these categories of preachers, teachers, and performers may reflect a represented history of African Americans where they could safely operate.
Another way to look at the Categories is to see which are most popular and in a history sense, most valued (Figure 12). The table is a bit unwieldy, so some of the categories are removed. The American Revolution, Early Settlement, and Exploration are really too early to incorporate African Americans properly. Native American and Ethnic categories are, by their nature, ethnic and not relevant to African Americans. The African American Category is by definition related to the topic. Finally, there is a sector of markers related to place and not people. Cities and Towns, Forts, Roads, Canals, Navigation, Houses and Homesteads, Paths and Trails, and Bridges can all be removed as not relevant to the discussion.
If you cycle through the most common categories, the only ones with substantial African American representation are Government and Politics, and Religion. These are areas where African Americans have excelled, largely because these are the areas where historically African Americans have been given space. African American Women have 21% of the Women Category. Is this a measure of how dominant African American Women have been in society, or perhaps is it a measure of how few women actually have markers – 50% of the population (and that has been true for several hundred years), but only 143 markers – less than 6% of the total.
If you look at categories such as Invention and Entrepreneur, which have 86 and 38 markers respectively, you find only 2 African Americans each. William Chester Ruth invented the baler feeder in 1928. Joseph Winters invented the fire escape ladder. Under Entrepreneur, there is the Standard Theatre, which was opened by John T. Gibson, who operated it in Philadelphia, and again our Joseph Winters.
We can agree that both Winters’ and Ruth’s inventions are worthy. Many of the remaining non-African American entries in the Category are also quite worthy, including Christian B. Anfinsen for ribonuclease (getting him an Nobel in 1972), or ENIAC in 1946 (the first practical computer), or Philo Farnsworth, one of the inventors of television. However, the Category has four individuals with multiple entries, none African American – George Westinghouse, Sig Lubin, Christopher Sholes, and David Meade. In addition, markers recognize the invention of such items as the Slinky, the split bamboo fishing rod, the first animal shelter, and the banana split. You might argue that an invention is an invention, but if these inventions had been created by African Americans, you would not have seen markers for them, nor would you have seen multiple markers for the same invention. What we are seeing here is white privilege more than technological advancements in civilization.
In December, 2020, the PHMC Marker staff made recommendations for 131 markers, of High, Medium, and Low Priorities, for potential revisions. Much of the concern seemed to be over the use of specific terms that may be offensive in today’s context, words such as “squaw, Indian marauder, Tory-Indian Frontier Menace, etc. Two of the 18 High Priority Markers were flagged externally by host institutions. The PHMC’s proposals, including the new policy, are useful but modest.
With regard to the 348 Historical Markers categorized as Native American, there is sufficient evidence to take much more forceful action. The vast majority of markers in the category were erected over 70 years ago, and true to the original mission of the PHC, glorify the conquest of “that savage race by civilized peoples.” This group of 348 markers, statewide, should be considered within the whole cloth of settler colonialism. The texts of these markers, taken all together, lack historic context, lack modern interpretation, and lack balance. Interpreted together as artifacts of their time, they tell a pretty accurate and compelling story of racism and white nationalism. Unfortunately, the “let me tell you what this marker actually means” companion sign is missing from each, which means that taken straight as teaching of history, these markers have the potential to do much more harm than good.
Incrementalism may eventually correct the biases and problematic markers noted above. However, at the current pace, it may take decades to fully address what is before us. The historic marker program still has the potential to fulfill its original mission of being an effective and popular tool for teaching history. However, the history that is being shared at the moment does a great disservice. In many ways, the status of this set of markers is equivalent to the status of confederate statues that were placed as a result of the Jim Crow and Lost Cause efforts in the early 20thCentury. Leaving them up is challenging and hurtful. Removing all of them erases not only the history of Pennsylvania, but hides the settler colonial history as well.
One approach, suggested by the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, would be to gather the worst of the group, the telling of the massacres and forts and conquests, into a marker garden at a state historical site and develop an interpretive exhibit around settler colonialism. The remainder of the markers would get a systematic and holistic review. Some, like the 20 markers of the Sullivan Expedition of 1779 could be reduced in number. Some, like the Walking Purchase, would be reworded to express the land theft it represented.
Ultimately, it is not my role here to prescribe solutions to this problem. That being said, there are reasonable and productive pathways to get to a solution. The model for this is Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which puts consultation to the center of decisionmaking. The PHMC should convene all of the descendant tribes to advise the PHMC as how to proceed. At last count, there are 16 Federally recognized tribes that were in Pennsylvania. They all have addresses and phone numbers, and people responsible for cultural and historical concerns. Getting the descendant communities to engage and advise has worked well in Section 106 issues, and although this is largely a history issue, the same approach has merit. The story of Pennsylvania is also the Native American story. The colonists have told theirs. Maybe it’s time to let Native Americans tell it.
The 235 African American markers present a different challenge. Although African American markers got a much later start than Native Americans, the work done since, especially in the early 1990’s has helped tell the African American story. More work is needed, and not just noodling words here and there on selected markers. First, a clearer distinction and recognition needs to be made between markers that commemorate African Americans and those that commemorate their allies and accomplices. Part of the problem is the way markers are categorized in the marker database. Even markers tangentially related to a category may be marked as belonging to that category. Perhaps a way to search and count markers that is more truthful to their proper category is to divide them into their primary category, containing only direct subject-related themes. A secondary or related category could be captured in another column. The Act of categorization might be dismissed as simply the matter of making piles for sake of making piles. However, categorization is the basis for tracking, for metrics, and ultimately for measuring fairness and equity. Just the simple matter of asking the question, “How many African American markers are there?” depends on categorization. The PHMC says 235. African American markers that commemorate African Americans as agents of their history number 180. Should the other 55 markers be categorized differently? Perhaps.
Secondly, despite efforts since the 1970’s to increase representation, the kinds of historical markers and their subjects need to be broadened to more greatly reflect the range of African American experience in Pennsylvania. It has to go beyond teachers, preachers, and entertainers. And it has to extend past the City of Philadelphia limits.
As with the population of Native American markers, the best action would be to convene a panel of African American experts, historians, leaders, and yes, even politicians, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the population of African American markers and to recommend future additions and revisions. It was tried in 1976, with modest success. Fifty years later, it may be time to try again. This time, though, the working group needs to be given enough power to implement recommendations. People need to be able to tell their own stories. This extends to markers, both in whom or what is chosen for a marker, and what that marker says.
This analysis focused on Native American and African American themed markers. It did not consider women, Hispanic, LGTBQ+, or other minority groups. A marker program established by powerful older white men will likely show other deficiencies in representing the range of people and events Pennsylvania deserves. Another analysis for another time, however, it is gratifying to see that very recently, a marker to Gloria Casarez has been erected – a Latina, a woman, and a member of the LGTBQ+ community.
In addition to the review of historical markers, the cost of replacing or revising perhaps 500 markers, at $2,200 to $2,700 a piece, is definitely going to run into 7 figures. It is unreasonable to expect the descendant communities to foot the bill. Pennsylvania’s historical markers is a Commonwealth and statewide program, not a local community program? For that matter, asking a local community to pony up the $2,200-2,700 to erect a new marker, in addition to the leg work involved, puts economically disadvantaged communities in a bind. The costs of the markers should be borne by the Commonwealth, not by the local community. This was the approach in 1945, a whole of government effort. In conjunction with state funding, major foundations should be approached to provide additional funding, as was done in the 1990s with the William Penn Foundation.
The Historical Marker Program is under the same scrutiny of any other state program. In addition, given the renewed interest in our nation’s history, and our Commonwealth history, the Marker Program is the broadest and most cohesive tool historians have to teach us all about our past. That part is unchanged since the enabling 1913 legislation. What has changed is the way these stories are being told today and the need for the Commonwealth to fairly and truthfully and fully tell them.
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Report and recommendations Concerning Historical Markers. Pennsylvania State Archives RG-13, Historical Marker Program Reports, Contracts, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Records, 1924-1945, Box A0107274, Folder 7.
-Stevens, S. K., Memo to Pennsylvania Historians. October 12, 1945. Pennsylvania State Archives RG 13, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Records Relating to Historical Roadside Markers. 1945-1953, Box A0107288, Folder 13.
-Stevens, S. K., Pennsylvania Marks its Historic Sites. Pennsylvania State Archives RG-13, Historical Marker Program Reports, Contracts, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Records, 1924-1945, Box A0107274, Folder 2.
-Shoemaker, Nancy, A Typology of Colonialism, Perspectives on History, the Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, October 1, 2015. Online at:
-Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. 1651, London.
-Shoemaker, Henry, Indian Folk Songs of Pennsylvania. 1927. Ardmore, PA: N.F. McGirr.
-Bronner, Simon J., Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Use of Folklore and History. 1996. University Park, PA. Pennsylvania State University Press.
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Photos and Programs for Markers, Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13 Historical Marker Program Reports, Contracts, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Records, 1924-1945, Box A0107274, Folder 1
-Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Shenck, Ex Sec’y, General Correspondence, 1928-1931, Historical Markers, Chief War Eagle. Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13, Administrative and Correspondence Files of the Chairman and Executive Secretary, 1927-1945, Carton 2: A1300835, Folder 2
-Gibson, Campbell and Kay Jung,, Historical Census Statistics on Population totals by Race, 1790-1990, and by Hispanic Origin 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States. 2002. Population Division Working Paper No. 56, Washington, US Census Bureau.
-Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Minutes of the Black History Advisory Committee, Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13, 1976-2009, Carton A0704326.
Historic bridges get no love, at least not from the civil engineering community. If you are a civil engineer, especially a bridge engineer, historic bridges are nothing but headaches. The concrete ones are probably rotted from the inside out, with outmoded and salt-ravaged rebar. The metal ones are riveted. Who does riveting anymore? There may be material loss from rusting. For some of the older ones, no one knows how they function. This isn’t taught in schools any more. For the average engineer, the numbers for rehabilitation don’t work. By the time the bridge gets to the attention of the design team, the bridge probably hasn’t been rehabilitated for 40-50 years. It is unlikely to have been maintained for the last 30 years. Neglect takes its toll. A proper rehab might give another 40 years of life to the bridge at two-thirds the cost of a new bridge. The new bridge would be designed for a 100 year life, and would require little or no maintenance for the first 30 years. Rehab looks like bad math.
On top of that, the oldest bridges, the older metal truss bridges, were never designed for the current loads on the road today. Virtually all of the bridges of this type are posted, from between 3-15 ton. They are narrow, sometimes only allowing one lane. But what has kept these bridges around are two critical factors. For the ones that remain, they manage to meet transportation need. Traffic might be under 800 cars a day, with few trucks. They are in remote areas serving not that many families. There may be redundancy in the network so there is another more recent bridge that can get people from A to B.
The second critical factor is funding. Simply put there aren’t enough simoleons available to bring the entire network up to snuff. For bridges and roads, there is always a delicate dance between putting funding into keeping roads up and keeping bridges up. In any given year, there’s about half enough funding to do everything well. So there are continual compromises. A road might get a bit of maintenance and deferred resurfacing, or resurfacing rather than a reconstruction. A bridge might get posted rather than rehabilitated. Usually maintenance is deferred. In some cases now, bridges are outright removed rather than rehabilitated, because the need cannot be demonstrated and the money is needed elsewhere. State DOT’s and their associated Federal Highway Administration State Divisions allocate funding by regional planning organizations. HATS, or the Harrisburg Area Transportation Study, is my planning organization for Cumberland, Dauphin, and Perry Counties, and their associated 103 municipalities, including my own boro of New Cumberland. For the four years between 2021 and 2024, a total of $266m is allocated. That is their share. That sounds like a lot, but even a small bridge replacement takes $2m. Reconstructing 1 mile of a 2-lane road runs over $5m. The HATS region has over 1,300 bridges and 5,000 miles of road to maintain.
Under normal times and when there is this funding diet, older and smaller historic bridges are protected from replacement because there simply isn’t enough money to get down the priority list to the 300 ADT, 3 Ton-posted structures. Under normal times, need drives the priority list in a very Darwinian way at a local level. The downside of this funding balance is that investment into maintenance of historic bridges is nil, leading to a self-fulfilling prophesy of deterioration and need to replace as the only viable alternative.
The infrastructure bill just signed into law has made this very non-normal times. A total of $110b will be injected into infrastructure over 5 years, of which $40b is for bridges. In addition, the Highway Trust Fund is provided nearly $300b over the next five years, around $60b a year.
Side-by-side you are looking at a total of $50-55b a year in Federal road and bridges expenditures to the states in 2020 being increased to $82b a year in 2022, a 60% increase. These Federal Funds will need to be matched by States in an 80/20 ratio, but I do believe that States will find the 20% to leverage the 80%. From the State’s perspective, it is free money.
Which brings us back to exhibit A, the Biden Photo-Op in New Hampshire. President Biden opens his campaign to sell the infrastructure bill with a photo-op in front of what NPR calls a rickety bridge and which the media describes as structurally unsafe. Structure 028401770014800 over the Pemigewasset River is a 183 foot long steel through truss arch bridge, built in 1939. In its last inspection in 2018, it had a sufficiency rating of 36.9 out of 100. The superstructure (the bridge part for most of us) is rated as 4 out of 10. The substructure – abutments and piers – are rated as 6 out of 10. The bridge currently has an ADT of around 650.
Oh, by the way, the bridge is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, although that is nowhere stated in articles.
LET’S CLARIFY ONE THING RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW! Any unsafe bridge should be closed immediately. Any DOT or bridge inspector that allows an unsafe bridge to remain open should be in jail for criminal negligence. This bridge is not closed. It is unlikely to be unsafe. It is structurally deficient, a term that continues to vex FHWA and bridge managers. FHWA doesn’t even use the term structurally deficient anymore because of the confusion with the public. The new terms are Good, Fair, and Poor with regard to different bridge elements; however, for this post, we will stay with the old terminology.
All bridges are rated on a 9 point system, from 0-9, with 9 being in perfect condition in all ways. The summary bridge rating is a composite of ratings for Deck, Superstructure, Substructure, and Culverts. Bridges with one component in code 4 or less is classified as structurally deficient (Poor). Our bridge superstructure is rated 4, hence meeting that structurally deficient test. The bridge’s sufficiency rating is a composite measure of whether the bridge should be replaced or not. Any rating below 50 recommends replacement. Our poster child bridge’s sufficiency rating is 36.9 and thus is eligible for federal funds for replacement
I’m sure President Biden read from the talking points provided by the NH DOT regarding why this bridge needs to be replaced. Some of which were regurgitated by the press. Overall message: This here bridge is about to fall down and kill people. Infrastructure funding will provide us with a nice, new and un-unsafe bridge.
Correction: It has come to my attention that this particular bridge is going to be rehabilitated instead of replaced, which is probably the right outcome, given the need. Nowhere in any of the press releases is this said, nor is the statement that it is historic. Although this bridge may have a successful outcome, with regard to historic preservation and meeting transportation need, other bridges may not be so lucky. So, I am keeping the rest of the article intact, as the points are still relevant.
Which all goes to show that “need” is a very subjective idea in an engineering world. Do you need to replace this historic bridge if you don’t have the funding and it is meeting some sort of transportation need? Probably not. If all of a sudden, you have these extra simoleons banging around in your pocket, maybe you do need to replace that bridge. Engineers are human, after all.
I don’t want to expend a lot of effort explaining why we should keep historic bridges, or any historic resource for that measure. At least grant me that this is a worthy goal. I do believe there is room to keep historic bridges in state DOT inventories and put them to good use. It does require planning and commitment, even more than funding, although funding is also needed. Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation act over 50 years ago. It remains, largely intact. Section 106 requires consideration of historic resources when Federal funds are used. This includes historic bridges. Furthermore, there is a part of transportation law, know commonly as 4(f), that requires a careful analysis of why a rehabilitation option isn’t “feasible and prudent.”
For this particular bridge, it may be the case that it does need to be replaced, but I am suspicious. (Correction: See above.) First, the bridge is not posted and the ADT is 650. It is on a rural minor collector, with only 10% of the traffic as truck traffic. As recently as 2013, the superstructure was rated fair, not poor, which suggests that maintenance was neglected. The deck is rated poor, but re-decking is a reasonably inexpensive task, actually the least expensive rehabilitation component you can get in a bridge. The channel and scour numbers are not that bad and seem to be stable. Frankly, if I were selecting a bridge for President Biden to be the poster child for the infrastructure bill, it wouldn’t be this one. Unless, NH DOT is trying to send a signal to the preservation community that they’re coming for our rivets.
Engineers have a well-deserved reputation for being analytical. And God help us if the organization responsible for maintaining our roads and bridges was faith-based, instead of analytical. However, too many engineers and DOT managers let the pursuit of the measurable over other values get the best of them. We can appreciate their desire to find the least cost solutions, but if it is at the expense of the environment, or history, perhaps these traits impede their judgement. For the reasons laid out above, most bridge engineers do not have warm feelings about historic bridges, but this does not excuse them from balancing costs and other environmental factors. That is the heart of NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) and Section 106 and 4(f). Engineers need to be human, not computational automatons.
Given the opening salvo in the road trip to sell the infrastructure bill is the President in front of an “unsafe” but historic bridge, I fear the prospects for other historic bridges are not good. I wonder how many of these will be swept away in this funding flood? If you are working in a State DOT or FWHA Division Office in historic resources, buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. If you are in a historic preservation organization, put this on your radar. It’s coming, fairly quickly. If you’re a regular citizen, maybe it’s time to ask your State DOT why the historic bridge in your neighborhood needs to be replaced instead of rehabilitated and whether your DOT is going to give more than lip service to Section 106 and Section 4(f).
Update: November 19, 2021, 3:15 PM
It has come to my attention that the 1939 historic New Hampshire bridge discussed in this article will be rehabilitated and not replaced. It is a better outcome than I had feared, but does not negate the overall tone of press articles and the suggestion that “rickety” bridges such as these should be replaced.
Yesterday, August 10th, was a great day. My all-time favorite Pennsylvania metal truss bridge, Messerall Bridge, was moved from its former location to a staging area where it can be rehabilitated. It will then become part of the Spillway Trail in Pymatuning State Park. Ownership of the bridge was transferred from Crawford County to DCNR. When it is opened, probably next year, it will extend an existing trail to 2.5 miles for walking and hiking.
DCNR stepped up to the plate to take this rare 1876 wrought iron bridge and give it a second life. Federal Funds, most likely FHWA funds, are being used to pay for the project.
When I started my blog in 2018, it was my hope that some way, somehow this bridge could be rescued. I have used it as my masthead and on business cards. When the bridge is re-dedicated next year, I will take a picture and update everything. For now, I feel I could walk across the bridge, deck or no deck.
The PA Transportation Revenue Options Commission (TROC) Final Report and Strategic Funding Proposal was recently released. It covers a myriad of financing options, given the projected demise of the gasoline tax as an effective means to fund roads and bridges. I don’t want to cover all of these as they are wide-ranging options and many go beyond my expertise. I do want to focus on a pair of options that deal specifically and only with Electric Vehicles (EV’s). One swaps out the current Alternative Fuels Tax for an annual $275 fee. This is a replay of last year’s misguided SB 845. For an EV driving the average number of passenger miles a year and getting a fuel economy 100-120 mpg-e (we will use our LEAF as the model, at 104 mpg-E), this translates into an equivalent of a gasoline tax of $2.29 per gallon. The other institutes a MBUF (Mileage Based User Fee) Pilot only for EV vehicles. To be clear, all vehicles on the road need to pay to support the upkeep of that road and associated bridges. However, the proposals with regard to EVs are punitive and unfair. They also discourage ownership of EV’s. Most agree EV’s are going to be a significant component of our future driving, if we are to address the climate crisis. The TROC Recommendations send us in the wrong direction.
EV’s in Pennsylvania are currently liable for an Alternative Fuels Tax, which is pegged to the mpg equivalencies of gas powered cars. The average passenger mileage driven each year is 12,435 (most recent numbers from 2014). A Toyota Prius gets 52 mpg and would consume an estimated 239 gallons of gasoline per year. At 58.7 cents per gallon, this yields a revenue of $140 a year. A Honda Civic gets 32 mpg and would consume an estimated 389 gallons a year. The Civic would yield a revenue of $228 a year. A Ford F-150 getting 16 mpg would consume 777 gallons and would yield a revenue of $455 a year. We own a Nissan LEAF that gets 104 mpg-e. For that average mileage, we would be consuming 120 gallons. Our alternative fuels tax would be $70, figured at $0.0172 per kWh. The Civic gets twice the fuel efficiency of the F-150, hence half the gas tax. The LEAF gets twice the fuel efficiency of the Prius, hence half the gas tax equivalent. The point of these numbers is to say that some vehicles get much better mileage than others and therefore pay much less in fuel taxes than others. Electric vehicles are the most “fuel-efficient.” And as a society we have accepted that, so far.
This is not to say the mechanisms for collecting the Alternative Fuels Tax are logical or efficient. First, it is not well advertised, either by the dealers or PennDOT at registration. Secondly, the forms are complicated and require registration of your own charger, if you have one. And you have to keep good records. I would put it at the same level of difficulty of filing state income taxes if you have a business. It could be greatly improved. I suspect collections are nearly non-existent.
For the proposed $275 in Electric Vehicle Fees, at the average passenger miles per year per vehicle, this would translate to a gas tax equivalent of $2.29 per gallon for the LEAF, not the 58.7 cents per gallon everyone else pays. Other EV’s would be in this range.
One of the principles of the Commission is to be Fair, and to produce balanced, reasonable, and responsible proposals. Why should EV’s be singled out, since there is an existing mechanism to collect the equivalent fuel taxes? The fact the TROC dismisses the existing mechanism is a flaw in the report, and support for the need to improve collection techniques. The removal of electric vehicles from the platform of equivalent fuels taxes is hardly fair and equitable. The Prius is a hybrid electric vehicle. Would it be fair to add a partial tax on these as well, since it’s partially an electric car? Hybrid owners get superior fuel economy. Shouldn’t they pay higher fees as well? In fact, shouldn’t every vehicle owner that gets good gas mileage be charged additional fees now, as they are evading the needed revenue to keep our roads and bridges maintained?
One of the principles of the Commission that is not on the list is a commitment to action on the climate crisis. A full 30% of the CO2 that will be required to be removed from our output comes from gas-powered vehicles. Getting this to zero in the next 10-15 years is critical if we are to meet IPCC goals. Tax policy is a powerful actor on behavior. We all know this, but despite the potential impacts of the Commission’s proposals on taxes, there is no acknowledgement of the need to direct some of that policy to addressing the Climate Crisis. It leads to a myopic view on revenue and at the minimum represents a missed opportunity to integrate revenue proposals with CO2 reductions. At the worst, it is a dereliction of duty for a governmental body in the middle of an existential crisis.
MBUF – Mileage Based User Fee – also known as VMT (Vehicles Miles Traveled), is a user fee that avoids the problem of fuel source. A car on the road driving a mile pays the same regardless of type of fuel. With regard to fairness, the MBUF is probably the most fair. The only other way it could be fairer is if there were a factor for vehicle weight as heavier vehicles beat up the road more than lighter ones. The TROC Report suggests an MBUF of 8.1 cents a mile in lieu of a gasoline tax (and presumably the EV Tax, although unstated.) For the average passenger car driving the average 12,435 miles a year, this would yield revenue of $1,007. Our F-150 drive would be paying more than twice what they are now in gas taxes. The Civic Driver 4x what they are paying now. The LEAF Driver 14x what they are paying now. But this would level the playing field with regard to road and bridge use.
Here’s my problem. The MBUF pilot is applied only to EV’s. As a pilot, it would begin in year 1 and could continue indefinitely. The MBUF is intended to replace the gas tax. Presumably, it would also replace the Electric Car fee. Fine, but for electric vehicle owners, it is a very expensive replacement. $1,007 versus $70, or $275 depending on how you view it: the report is not clear. Gas-powered vehicles would be spared the MBUF until much later. How is that fair?
One way to address this in a fair manner is to phase in the MBUF for all vehicles and phase out the gas tax. Start at a 0.5 cents per mile in Year 1, and increase it proportionally for 10 years until you get to the 8.1 cents per mile. At the same time, reduce the gas tax (and its alternative fuels equivalent) proportionally for 5 years until it is zeroed out. The MBUF can be calculated at registration or at inspection and collected then. That would affect everyone equally, regardless of fuel type, and by the end, fuel type would no longer be a factor in the amount collected. The TROC Report pegs the need to double the amount of revenue lost through a gas tax, so in principle, the 5 year phase out of the gas tax can be matched by a 10 year phase in of the MBUF without a significant financial impact in the first 5 years. I would note under Act 89, gas taxes more than doubled in 4 years. The MBUF would double in 5 years, between years 6 and 10.
The TROC seems hesitant to go forward with the MBUF now and wants to wait for national action. Oregon didn’t wait. Neither should we.
The Commonwealth still offers a rebate to purchasers of electric vehicles. Now, this Commonwealth Commission is recommending clawing back that rebate, through a fee just for EV’s, or an MBUF pilot just for EV’s. It seems that one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. This may actually be likely as there are representatives of the Railroad Association, the Bus Association, Unions, AAA, Motor Truck Association, public transit, the Pennsylvania Diversity Coalition, and bicycle and pedestrian groups. None of the members either represent electric vehicle owners or appear to have any expert knowledge in the care and feeding of electric vehicles. Most of us don’t all own high-end Teslas or Porsche Taycan’s. Some of us own electric vehicles because of our commitment to the environment, not as some fashion statement.
Recommendations regarding EV’s that punish owners is one thing, but it is merely a symptom of the bigger problem. The recommendations move us further away from addressing the Climate Crisis. If the authors of the report are suggesting an urgency in acting to fix our revenue problem (and I agree there is urgency), there also needs to be a concomitant urgency in addressing the problems with gas and diesel-powered vehicle CO2 emissions. Ultimately, the TROC report is too narrow and too incomplete to be useful. If it were to be implemented, it would cease being irrelevant and begin being damaging.