Mesoamerican Exceptionalism and the Archaeology of the Less Than

A plug for Ken Burkett, the 2022 Winner of the SAA Crabtree Award, given to recognize significant contributions to archaeology in the Americas made by an individual who has had little if any formal training in archaeology and little if any wage or salary as an archaeologist.  Folks like Ken are doing the work research universities should be doing but aren’t.

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

Aztec human sacrifice as shown in the Codex Magliabechiano, Folio 70, page 141.  No, this is not a depiction of an archaeology dissertation defense, although it does feel like one.

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.

Land Acknowledgment? What Could Go Wrong?

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
Cayuga Nation 
Delaware Nation, Oklahoma 
Delaware Tribe of Indians 
Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma 
Seneca-Cayuga Nation 
Shawnee Tribe 
Tuscarora Nation

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.

Pennsylvania’s Historical Marker Program: A Holistic Review of Native American and African American-themed Markers

On October 23, 1925, Chief Strong Wolf participated in the dedication of the Indian Walk marker in Bucks County
The full text reads: “…of a day and a half from Wrightstown, Bucks County to near the present Mauch Chunk was performed for the Penn proprietors of Pennsylvania September 19-20, 1737 by EDWARD MARSHALL and his associates coming by the old Durham Road and a well-beaten Indian path At noon of the first day they ate their meal in the meadow of Mary Wilson widow of George Wilson an Indian Trader and Innkeeper who settled here about 1730 on a 472 acre tract located upon this branch of Cook’s Creek in present Springfield Township Bucks County.”

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,[1] 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.[2]  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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. A process for revising and retiring markers is set out, also involving the panel, PHMC staff, and the Commission.
  4. 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[3] nor Robinson and Galle’s centennial review.[4]

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)[5]

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)[6] (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)[7]

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.”[8]

Prior to WWII, the mode of marker was undergoing a significant re-evaluation.[9]  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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.

Figure 1: Historical Markers erected, by Decade

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)[14]

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)[15]

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.[16]

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


Indian Trails

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.

Figure 2: Total Markers versus Native American Markers by Count
Figure 3: Percentage Native American Markers, by Decade

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.”[17]

  • 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.
Table 1: Native American Markers, by Decade and Sub-Division

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?

Table 2: Native American Markers as Subject, by Decade and by Sub-Division

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.

Figure 4: Word Cloud, representing Native Americans as Subject
Table 3: Table of Relevance, representing Native Americans as Subject

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.

Figure 5: Word Cloud, representing Native Americans as Object
Table 4: Native American Markers as Object, by Decade and by Sub-Division
Table 5: Table of Relevance, representing Native Americans as Object

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.[18]  However, regardless of the man’s biography, for Henry Shoemaker, Chief Strong Wolf did “underscore the Indian connection” with early Pennsylvania History (p.43).[19]

Figure 6: The Unveiling at Germantown.[20] I particularly like this photo of Chief Strong Wolf. This photograph was not the one used in the official Fourth Report of the PHC. Unlike virtually all of the official photographs where Chief Strong Wolf is solemn, in this image he is relaxed and smiling.
Figure 7: The unveiling of The Famous Indian Walk.[21]

In the late 1920’s, the PHC also contracted with a Delaware Native American, Chief War Eagle, for marker dedications.[22]  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.[23] 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 Subject yielded the word cloud below (Figure 8):

Figure 8:African American Word Cloud – sub-group Subject Category

The generator also produced a listing of terms by degree of relevance (Table 6):

Table 6: Table of Relevance, representing African American, as Subject

Compare this world cloud to the word cloud generated by only considering the markers under African American Object (Figure 9, Table 7):

Figure 9: African American Word Cloud – Object Only
Table 7: Table of Relevance, representing African American, as Object

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.

Table 8: Highest Relevancy for African American, Subject v Object

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.

Table 9: African American  Markers as Subject, or Object, by Decade
Figure 10: African American Markers as Subject, or Object, by Decade, by Count
Figure 11: African American Markers as Subject, or Object, by Decade, by Percentage

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).[24]  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.[25] They formed an advisory committee on Black History in Pennsylvania, which met for the first time September 16th.  In 1980,[26] and again in 1982,[27] 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.[28]

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.[29] [30] 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.[31]

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. 

Table 10: All Categories versus African American Representation

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.

Table 11; Marker Categories with the highest Percentage African American

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.

Figure 12: Normalized Frequency of Categories v. African American Representation

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.


[1]-Levin, Kevin M, When It Comes to Historical Markers, Every Word Matters. Online Smithsonian Magazine July 6 2017.

[2]-PHMC Historical Marker Text Evaluation Report – December 2, 2020, Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, accessed October 5, 2021,

[3]-Beyer, George, Celebrating Fifty Years of State Historical Markers. Online Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Summer, 1996.

[4]-Robinson, John K. and Karen Galle, A Century of Marking History: 100 Years of the PA Historical Marker Program, Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Fall 2014, Volume XL, Number 4.

[5]-Pennsylvania Historical Commission, First Report of the Historical Commission of Pennsylvania. 1915. New Era, Lancaster.


[7]-Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Second Report of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. 1918. 

[8]-Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Conserving Pennsylvania’s Historic Past. Commission Bulletin 3, 1939 Harrisburg.

[9]-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.

[10]-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.

[11]-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.





[16]-Shoemaker, Nancy, A Typology of Colonialism, Perspectives on History, the Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, October 1, 2015. Online at:

[17]-Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. 1651, London.

[18]-Shoemaker, Henry, Indian Folk Songs of Pennsylvania. 1927. Ardmore, PA: N.F. McGirr.

[19]-Bronner, Simon J., Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Use of Folklore and History. 1996. University Park, PA. Pennsylvania State University Press.

[20]-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


[22]-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

[23]-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.

[24]-Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission,  Minutes of the Black History Advisory Committee, Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13, 1976-2009, Carton A0704326.


[26]-Ibid. October 2, 1980 meeting.

[27]-Ibid. June 17, 1982 meeting.

[28]-Ibid. March 3, 1984 meeting.

[29]-Ibid. September 30, 1988 meeting.

[30]-Beyer, George, Celebrating Fifty Years of State Historical Markers. Online Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Summer, 1996.

[31]-Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission,  Minutes of the Black History Advisory Committee, Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-13, 1976-2009, Carton A0704326.

Infrastructure Funding Boost Puts Historic Bridges At Risk

President Biden speaks about his infrastructure bill at a bridge across the Pemigewasset River in Woodstock, N.H., which has been declared “structurally unsafe.

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.

Messerall Bridge Finds a New Home

Messerall Bridge at its former location near Titusville, PA

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.

TROC’s “Gift” to Electric Vehicles: $2.29 a gallon equivalent gas tax; TROC’s “Gift” to the Climate Crisis: Driving the Wrong Way Down a One-Way Street

How EV’s fare against gas-powered vehicles under the new TROC Report Recommendations.

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.

The Electric Car Driving Experience: Part 2. Overnight Road Trip

Updated June 21, 2021

With apologies to E. S. Bach and the Library of Congress, 1923.

A week ago, we took the LEAF Plus on a long delayed trip to Indiana, PA.  The reason for the trip was to visit an Indiana University of PA summer archaeological field school near Blairsville.  Their team is chasing down the lost town of Newport, which was established over 200 years ago and had pretensions to being not only a thriving port town on the Conemaugh, but the county seat.   The town included several businesses, a hotel, a post office, and a wharf. By the mid-19th century, it had been largely abandoned.  The other reason for the trip was to figure out how to get an electric car with a 200 mile range to complete a 375 mile trip.  That and getting a sense of how the LEAF would perform on the interstate for an extended period of time.

The town of Newport, 1817. Courtesy of the PA State Archives, RG-17.

We are pleased to report that we made it out and back in a very undramatic fashion.  Nor were we shot at while in driving in Bedford County, even though we passed within 10 miles of Schellsburg and had a Biden/Harris sticker on the rear bumper of our foreign-badged electric car.

The Drive

We threw our suitcases into the trunk on a Monday morning and headed out on the PA Turnpike with a fully charged battery.  Throughout the trip, we maintained the posted speed limit, although the LEAF had sufficient power to operate at any realistic speed.  It was steamy and hot on that day and we had the A/C and the radio running throughout.  The A/C does draw on the battery, but not very much, only about 10 miles per charge.  What did draw on the battery was the 70 mph speed limit on the Turnpike.  Overall, we maintained an average efficiency of 3.7 miles per Kw hour.  By reference, the week before driving locally at 25-40 mph, we were getting 4.2 miles per Kw hour.  The LEAF Plus is rated at 216 mile range for its 62 kWh battery, but a 3.7 mile per kWh efficiency should yield a range of 229 miles.

As an electric, the LEAF is incredibly quiet on the road, even at 70 mph.  All of the safety features were turned on, so we had not only cruise control, but sensors that slowed the car if you got behind another one.  If you drifted out of your lane, the steering wheel would vibrate.  Intelligent Lane Intervention (I-LI) also uses selective braking to pull the car back to the center of the lane, but it is not a full-blown self-steering system.  (Remember, this is a LEAF, not a Tesla.)  The I-LI is a bit creepy and took some getting used to, kind of like having an orangutan as a back-seat driver, who rests both of his arms on your forearms and pulls you left or right, depending on the mood or circumstance.

Even at high speeds, the LEAF sits on the road.  Lord knows, the 3,900 pound curb weight enabled by the large battery, gives it a low center of gravity.  This might be the biggest surprise of a car like the LEAF.  It may look like an SUV from the outside, but rides lower.  All of the systems performed well – braking, steering, A/C, what have you.  It more or less drives like a car.

Charging on the Road

Sheetz Charging Area, Bedford, PA

After the first 100 miles, we took a break at the Sheetz in Bedford, right off the Turnpike exit.  In the back there is a charging area and exactly one CHAdeMO port, which fortunately was free and working.  Sheetz has a partnership with the Electrify America system which provides CCS and CHAdeMO stations across the country.  You flip the charging lid on the LEAF, plug in the charger, and follow the screen instructions, which also allows you to insert a charge card. For non-members, it is 16 cents a minute for a Level 3 charge rated at 50 kW throughput.

A bathroom break and snacks brought us back to the charger in 20 minutes, but we stayed around for another 10 minutes to get 21 kWh added into the “tank” for a cost of $4.81.  If you want the math, we added 78 miles of range for about 6 cents a mile.  As gas is over $3.00 a gallon, we got over 50 miles per gallon equivalency.  And this with a premium price for electricity at the stop.

We returned to the same Sheetz on Tuesday, the 8th and 13 put in kWh for $3.21.  This gave us plenty of range to drive the remaining 98 miles home.  With another round of bathroom breaks and a snack, we did not linger and were on the road in 20 minutes, the time of the charge.

The Right Hotel

The two charging ports at the Hilton Garden Inn.

In 2019, we were at Indiana for a conference and stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn, just off campus.  At the time we noted that it had two chargers in the parking lot, one for a Tesla and one Level 2 charger running on a generic J1772 plug.  The Level 2 charger is equivalent to the one we have in our garage, so we knew that we could get a full overnight charge from the hotel, if it was available.  Fortunately, it was.  We’re still at the point where Level 2 (public) chargers are usually available.

When we checked in, we plugged in the LEAF and went to our rooms. For dinner, we drove into town and returned to the charger and re-plugged it in for the night.  By morning, we were fully charged and ready for our trip home.  For reference, a Level 2 charger takes about 10-11 hours to fully charge the LEAF Plus’ 62 kWh battery.

As a plug for the Hilton, it is a nice hotel and better than what we normally use, but having the chargers made all the difference.  One point of concern, though.  When we pulled in, there was a large Toyota SUV sitting in the Tesla spot, in spite of the sign there stating it was for Tesla EV’s only.  We mentioned it to the clerk at the desk.

Planning, Planning, Planning

We were able to make the 375 mile roundtrip to Indiana, PA through careful planning and just a pinch of luck.  We located a fast Level 3 charger en route in Bedford.  We selected a hotel that had an overnight Level 2 charger.  We were fortunate that both were available when we needed them.  Electrify America does take some precautions to ensure its ports are accessible.  If you leave your EV too long at one of their chargers, it will tell you on the app and then charge you (not the car) after 10 minutes.

We know the range of the LEAF is circa 200 miles on the open road.  We tried to make sure we had a 20-30 mile range at all times.  This meant we needed to make sure that we were never further than 170 miles from a charger, whether it be Level 2 or Level 3.  One thing more.  Most Level 3 chargers are designed to get you quickly to an 80% charge, but move more slowly after that.  Part of this is to ensure your battery is protected.  On paper, and 80% charge gives the LEAF an 180 mile range, leaving you with less buffer but a faster trip.

That a non-EV was taking up one of the parking spots for the limited number of EV chargers was disconcerting.  I would like the hotel and other hotels to treat these spots like Handicapped  Parking spots.  If you are not supposed to be there, you get a citation.

Final Thoughts

Planning is clearly the key to making a longer road trip in an EV.  However, all of the planning would have been for naught if the charger in Bedford wasn’t working, or the one at the Hilton.  We did check a backup Sheetz in Altoona, which also has a Level 3 Charger, but did not physically visit the place.  There are 3 other J1772 Level 2 chargers in downtown Indiana, one at the Nissan Dealership and two at the Borough Building.  If push came to shove, we might have parked the LEAF downtown and take a Lyft or Uber back to the Hotel, or walked. It’s about 1.2 miles each way.

One would think the PA Turnpike would have Level 3 Chargers for Tesla, CCS, and CHAdeMO at every rest area.  They do not.  Once you head west on the Turnpike out of Harrisburg, the first charging station west bound is at New Stanton.  You can get to Indiana, PA via New Stanton, but it’s 55 miles further and an hour longer.  New Stanton is 175 miles from New Cumberland and about the limit of range for the LEAF, considering buffer. Since it is a west bound rest area, on the return trip, you would have to drive west-bound to get on the Turnpike, then turn around to get home.  It’s do-able, but will add another 15 miles to the trip, which is already 55 miles longer.  The nearest east-bound rest area with a  Level 3 Charger is Oakmont Plum, just out of Pittsburgh, and too far to make part of the trip.

This is a long way of saying to the PA Turnpike, “GET MORE CHARGING STATIONS, GUYS!!!!”

Addendum – June 21, 2021

Interestingly, in the June 20, 2021 Sunday New York Times, Elaine Glusac rented a 2020 Nissan Leaf Plus for a road trip in the mountains of Colorado.  Compare her experience with ours. 

De-CAR-bonizing our Gas-Powered Fleet

Response to Plumer et al.

Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Tx 1974 – One way to take gas-guzzlers out of the automobile population

Plumer, Popovitch, and Migliozzi’s NYT article of March 10thElectric Cars are Coming. How Long Until They Rule the Road, makes an interesting point, that simply selling electric cars won’t get us to carbon-neutral quickly enough.  People will keep driving gas-powered cars for a long time, because they can.  However, the article has two flaws.  First, the authors bury the lead until the very end, a journalistic offense.  Economics, and by its application, human behavior are the tools by which gas-powered cars can be removed from the motor pool.  Secondly, the authors are looking at the current landscape and making typical recommendations, but are suffering from a lack of vision that this large problem requires.  A too quick or incomplete read of the article puts it on the brink of defeatism.

Our love affair with car ownership shows real cracks, especially with those under 40.  More young people are living in cities, using public transportation or foot or bicycle, eschewing car ownership altogether. Car sharing has become an increasing part of the transportation mix. Why own a car when you can rent it by the hour, or buy a trip through Lyft and Uber.  Leasing has creeped up from around 20% in 1999 to over 30% last year.  The idea of buying a car new and driving it into the ground is likely to be entombed with the Boomer generation.  People may need a car from time to time, but they may no longer have the kind of emotional attachments to it that some had when listening to the Beach Boys or Elvis on AM through the crappy 9-inch speaker in the dash.

Yes, cars are being built better to last longer, but people drive older cars out of economic necessity, not love or moral certitude.  People drive older cars because they have no other choice.  $40,000, the average price of a new car, is a major investment. The 12-year current lifespan of cars, e.g., 200,000 miles is not immutable. Fifty years ago, it was 100,000 miles and in the 1930’s, 50,000+ miles.  Cars have been engineered to last longer. Refrigerators and other major appliances have been engineered to expire more quickly. Perhaps companies will respond to the nature of future demand and produce cheaper vehicles more like a Yugo and less like a Mercedes-Benz.

 Leasing trends show a correlation between recessions and depressed car leasing – economics are inexorably linked with car ownership.  For better or worse, buying a car is a somewhat rational economic decision. As the authors cite at the very end of their article, economic actions, through market or policy, can make gas-powered car ownership too costly to maintain in relationship to electric cars.  Gas prices and carbon fees can be economic levers to use, perhaps in conjunction with something like the formerly ill-fated cash-for-clunkers program.  The economic tools available to push people toward EV’s are almost endless. The goal is simple, make ownership or use of gas-powered cars too expensive to sustain.

If the policies are successful, the last owners of gas-powered cars, such as those that bought new in 2034, will be left holding the bag.  As far as what to do with the musical chairs issue of gas-powered cars facing retirement before expiration date, companies may respond by producing cheaper and more disposable vehicles. Ultimately, the trick will be to incrementally depress resale value, such as through an excise tax on new and used cars.  The buy-back clunkers program implemented by itself was unsuccessful.  A buy-back program, coupled with other policies that keep the cost of “ownership” high, can systematically and relentlessly removed gas-powered cars from the pool.  

Electric conversions are not new. Home mechanics have been experimenting with this since the 70’s, and at the top end, I can buy a 1960’s electrified Jaguar if I have $350,000 laying around.  Seriously, later model SUV’s would be good candidates for a company that could retrofit them with electric motors and batteries.  Recycle or melt down the rest.  Lord knows, if we can be somewhat successful in promoting electric cars, the supply of suitable gas-powered cars for conversions should be ample.  Will people care? I doubt it, as long as their transportation needs are met.  As far as those on the bottom of the economic ladder, their getting adequate transportation goes far beyond the issue of the nation getting carbon-neutral.  But keeping them in old gas-guzzlers won’t solve these larger problems of income inequality.

User Fees, Gas Taxes, and Electric Cars: The Coming Reckoning (Updated and Corrected May 4, 2021)

I continue to have issues with cartoon hands and fingers. Given Reddy Kill-o-watt has only 3 fingers, is he flipping off a gas pump or not?

The saying goes that the only sure things are death and taxes.  For electric car owners in Pennsylvania, the only sure thing is death.  Taxes seem to be a bit iffy.  PennDOT is funded by gas taxes, registration fees, and other fees and tolls.  Most of these are characterized as user fees, which over the decades has proven to be a sensible way to fund our transportation infrastructure.  For 2020-21, PennDOT should get $6.9 billion for highways and bridges.  Of that, 74% will come from gas taxes.  Currently, the Federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, unchanged since 1993. The State gas tax is 58.7 cents a gallon.  Both are folded into the pump price of gasoline.  But if you have an electric car, there are no visits to the gas pump.

User Fees and the Pump

Should electric cars get a pass for helping to fund the transportation infrastructure?  Having worked for DOT’s for over 30 years, I do believe that common roads and bridges, managed by government and funded by taxes and fees, are the fairest and most sensible way to maintain a transportation network.  One need only look at the numerous private bridge companies, canal companies, and toll road companies that operated in the 19th century, all of which went bankrupt or out of business, leaving their wreckage to the management of the state.  I presume some investors made a profit and the facilities operated in good condition for a while.  Ultimately, this failed business model led to the incorporation of state highway departments and the establishment of steady funding, e.g., the gas tax in 1919.  But I digress.

The Workaround

“Fortunately,” the Commonwealth has developed a process for collecting a user fee from electric car owners.  It relies on a process known as the Alternative Fuels Tax.  Each kWh that is “pumped” into an electric car is subject to a $0.0172 tax, payable to the Department of Revenue.  The tax is charged at the charging station (makes sense).  If you charge your electric car at a public charging station, the owner of that station is responsible for registering that station and remitting the tax on a periodic basis.  If you own your charging station, as we do, that burden falls on you.  You might imagine that it is a simple matter of tracking the amount of electricity used and doing a simple calculation and cutting a check.  You would be wrong. This is state government, after all.

Our charger, in the garage.

The first step is to register your charging station with the Commonwealth as an Alternative Fuels storage tank, using a Form REV-822.  We did that in October 2019 and had the permit gone through, we would have received an Account ID.  We finally received our ID in Late April 2021.  Then we would complete and submit an Alternative Fuels Tax Report, a form DMF-101, with a check, perhaps monthly. The form never really says.  This process covers “natural gas, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, liquid propane gas, liquefied petroleum gas, alcohols, gasoline-alcohol mixtures containing at least 85 percent alcohol by volume, hydrogen, hythane, electricity, and any other fuel used to propel motor vehicles on the public highways which is not taxable as fuels or liquid fuels under Chapter 90.”  Wood is not mentioned.  (Yes, there were wood-powered cars.) Nor is the wood tax rate provided (by the cord? How many cords could a Cord burn if a Cord could burn wood?).

Wood gas vehicle, Germany, 1946.

After waiting a year, we completed a DMF-101 for 2019 and one for 2020 and sent in our calculated taxes.  Our charger does not have a meter on it, so I had to estimate our kWh usage into the Leaf.  Each time we charged the Leaf, I recorded the miles travelled and the miles-per-kWh recorded in the car.  That yielded the kWh used.  I kept a log for each charge and totalled the kWh for years 2019 and 2020.  Klugey, but workable.  

The Problem

I don’t consider myself particularly virtuous, but I did drink the kool-aid regarding user fees and am committed to paying our fair share for use of the road.  I might be alone.  No one approached me about the Alternative Fuels Tax, or how to secure a permit, or pay the tax.  The Department of Revenue seemed to be a bit blasé about collecting the fees.  Two gentlemen did come by and visit in November, 2019 to check out my charging station.  I think they thought I was a bit crazy.

We paid our taxes for the 2,131 miles we drove in 2019 (the car was bought in September) and the 7,076 miles we drove in 2020.  We are not driving a lot right now and the amount in question is less than a good steak dinner.  There are probably fewer than 10,000 electric cars on the road in Pennsylvania out of over 10 million registered.  Is it even worth having this discussion?

I believe so.  GM is committing to an all electric fleet by 2035.  California is calling for all new cars to be electric by 2035.  Meeting climate goals will require the US to have a majority of its cars and trucks be electric by 2040. Relying on gas taxes to support the transportation infrastructure is unsustainable.  And this does not take into account improved CAFÉ standards. Coming back to my first point that user fees are a way to support transportation infrastructure, we are going to have to come up with a fair way to collect revenue, regardless of fuel type.

Possible Solutions

The current system of collecting revenue from electric vehicles suggests the system is mysterious, broken, and failing.  There are several ways this can be rectified, with and without legislation.  The current method of taxation relies on measuring electric use directly from the charger.  This can be modeled, relying on miles traveled and the car’s EPA-rated mpg-e.  In our example, in 2020 we travelled 7,076 miles.  Our Leaf is EPA-rated at a combined mpg-e of 104 miles.  Using the factor of 33.7 kWh per gallon, you can estimate a miles-per-kWh of 3.09 (104/33.7).  For the 7,076 miles traveled, you can estimate a use of 2,290 kWh.  Taxed at $0.0172 per kWh, we would owe $39.39.  All that is required to be known is miles traveled and the EPA mpg-e rating by car model.

The tax could be collected at the time of annual registration, with a line added to the form.  PennDOT could provide an on-line look-up table to help.  Punch in your car model and miles traveled and it will tell you the tax.  Or, the tax could be collected at the time of inspection.  The shop inspecting the car could calculate and add the tax to the inspection fee.

Sooner or later, VMT will have to become a larger part of the user fee equation, especially if revenue is to keep up with the need for infrastructure repair.  User fees should be bifurcated into two components.  The first is the fuel tax, tagged to consumption.  Gas taxes would continue to be levied.  Electric vehicles would be taxed at a kWh equivalency.  This would reward fuel efficiency and electric vehicles, as most electric powered cars operate at over twice the fuel efficiency of gas-powered cars.  The second component would be a VMT levied on all cars, which would be the purest form of a user fee.  A 4 cent a mile VMT would roughly match the revenues generated from gas taxes, and together would double the total revenue, which most certainly be used to meet the current deferred need.  The VMT could be phased in over several years, but would buffer the projected loss in revenue from traditional gas taxes.

Understanding we need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, I do support a carbon fee and dividend that would also apply to gasoline.  A $100 a ton CO2 fee would add a dollar to the cost of a gallon of gas.  But this fee provides nothing for roads and bridges and only hastens the (good) transition to decarbonized transportation.  Another discussion for another day.

Call to Action

The process for folding electric car owners into the revenue system is at best, haphazard.  Most owners are oblivious to their obligations.  The forms, the applications, the messaging, are all barriers to collecting revenue, especially when compared to paying the tax at the gas pump.  PennDOT should be more proactive to inform new electric vehicle owners of their responsibilities.  They should work with Revenue, and possibly the Legislature, to simplify the process.  This will pay back handsomely as the number of electric vehicles on the roads grows.

Action is needed now if there is any hope to raise the revenues needed to maintain our roads, bridges, and transit.  Recent proposals from the legislature only unfairly punish electric car owners through artificially high registration fees.  Very soon there is going to be a national push to put people into electric cars.  As someone worried about climate change, I welcome it.  However, what good will it do when half of the cars are in the shop for repairs for pothole damage, and the other half is stuck in traffic?


On April 14, 2021, I received a letter from PennDOT secretary Gramian responding to the letter I sent her regarding the upcoming problem generating revenue from electric cars.

On April 14, 2021, I received my Account Number to be used for my DMF-101 form.

On April 28, 2021, I learned of my mis-calculation of the DMF-101. The true rate is $0.0172 per kWh, not the $0.0137 previously reported. $0.0172 is very close to the gasoline equivalent for electric energy.

Transportation, Climate Change, and Mayor Pete

Isambard Kingdom Brunel during the construction of the Great Eastern, 1857

Recently, one of President Biden’s cabinet picks has come under scrutiny, largely for the apparent youth and inexperience of the candidate. Kind of a flashback to President Reagan and the then 56-year old candidate Walter Mondale 35 years ago.  How times have changed.  Pete Buttegieg, Mayor Pete, has been nominated (and as of February 2, 2021, confirmed) to head the Department of Transportation, a large and sprawling agency with almost 56 thousand employees and a budget of $75 billion.  Almost everything you buy or touch is affected by transportation.

Mayor Pete is 39 years old and the only elected office he has held has been Mayor of a small city in Indiana.  His transportation experience has largely been limited to the 18-stop bus system in South Bend, and an eternal pothole problem.  In this discussion, there are really only two questions worth pursuing.  First, what really is the job description for US DOT Secretary? And two, how does Mayor Pete’s credentials match up to the job?  The final question will have to wait for a bit.  How well is/was he doing?

What does the US DOT Secretary Do?

At the level of a US Cabinet position, the job of Secretary is the job of a manager and administrator.  They are to guide the Department, following the lead of the President, and push the President’s mission down the line.  Historically, some Departments are highly politicized and some are not.  You could say that Secretary of State is politics played at its highest level, that it is pure politics.  Some, like Transportation, or Agriculture, seem much less politicized.  Much of this depends on whether the people back home are directly affected by the actions of the Department or not.  I can tell you, that through the Highway Trust Fund, and the Federal Highway Administration, a part of US DOT, the dollars become local and immediate.  People do care whether the roads and bridges are fixed. They care how long it takes to get to work.  They care how safe the planes are, whether the airports are open or closed, and do the trains run on time.  To that end, US DOT becomes one big meritocracy, performance-based, and it has to be functioning, or there will be hell to pay.

Back when I was working at PennDOT, we used to joke that we were in the land of engineers, these bloodless and calculating souls whose job it was to squeeze a few pennies out of a contract and to ignore everyone who was not an engineer.  By and large, working at PennDOT was a pure pleasure, since science and not religion reigned in practice.  Let’s just say when trying to figure out how to build a bridge, the engineers would consult testing results and data, not the ACLU or the Pro-Life Action League.  Roads weren’t Democrat or Republican.  I suspect it is the same as USDOT.  I raise as Exhibit A, that although the most recent Secretary was one Elaine Chao who married to a certain former Senate Majority Leader, she did have prior transportation experience and seemed to have had a good grasp of the job and how to do it.  Thinking about all of the Cabinet-level appointments made by the prior President, selecting Chao as USDOT Secretary seems to be one of the least nutty choices that was made.

Wait! This is the job?!

Under normal times, the job description would be like that of a ship’s captain, keep the vessel pointed forward and try not to wreck it on an iceberg.  The little secret about DOT and most large bureaucracies like it is that there is enough inertia within to keep it moving forward on autopilot.  Yes, everyone has to do their job, but that’s precisely the point.  The Secretary is the main liaison between the agency and the President.  Undersecretaries do most of the real work and need to have the most knowledge-base.   

But these are not normal times.  The President has made it pretty clear that grappling with the warming planet is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise. A one-government approach will be needed to address our activities to help or hurt the carbon balance.  On this specific problem, a few Departments are key.  Transportation – the sector, not the Cabinet position – contributes 36% of the CO2 into the atmosphere, and (in 2017) 29% of greenhouse gases.  The transportation sector is the largest single emitter, followed by power generation, industry and agriculture.  All of a sudden, the Transportation Department has a central place at this table and what happens at Transportation will largely determine the success or failure of President Biden’s climate policy.

What are we talking about here?  Baby steps, like CAFÉ standards, only nibble at the edges. And yes, it would be nice to have cars and trucks with higher fuel economies.  But to get to the kind of carbon neutral targets that are being proposed, the entire fleet will need to become either 100% electric or mostly electric. That includes trucks.  

Biden’s climate plan gives you an indication of what lies on Mayor Pete’s plate.  He wants to create a million new jobs in the American auto industry, building this zero-carbon future. He wants to improve the infrastructure, to include smart roads, transit networks, airports, rail, ferries, and ports.  He wants to give every city with 100,000 residents a carbon-free public transportation system, everything from light rail to buses, bikes, and pedestrians.  GM seems to be on board with this vision, but it will take much more than pliant manufacturers to get to these goals.  Roads and bridges consume enormous amounts of cement, the production of which produces a lot of CO2. DOT will need to work with manufacturers to reduce the CO2 emissions from cement manufacturing.  Trains are enormously energy efficient, but these are currently controlled mostly by private entities.  Cooperation here will be needed to improve passenger rail service (I’m sure Amtrak would like that!).  In urban areas, transit is critical to move people around, but transit has been neglected for support for decades.  Soooo… much money is needed for transit. Even in Podunk Harrisburg, transit is essential and the buses will need to be converted to electric to make a difference.

Powerful interests are lined up against a climate friendly agenda.  For any incoming Cabinet Secretary, the knives will be out before any meaningful action.  A lot of what is being proposed will require bipartisan support.  In normal times, the Secretary can guide the ship.  In these times, the Secretary will have to rebuild the ship from the keel up, while it is sailing.  Mayor Pete, welcome aboard.

How does Mayor Pete Stack Up (on paper)?

Pete Buttegieg is 39 years old and has been the mayor of South Bend, population 102,000, and a career politician with a  very short career.  How does he stack up to his 18 predecessors, who have served as US DOT Secretary since the position was created in 1967?  Well, here are some fun facts:

  • Fully half of the Secretaries had no transportation experience prior to entering the position, neither with government nor industry.
  • Five had been former majors, from cities the size of Portland, OR to Denver.  I would argue that being mayor of Denver or South Bend is basically the same kind of job and experience, when the mayor acts as the chief executive and not just the agent of city council.
  • Two other nominees were 39 years old when selected.  Pete is the youngest by a few months.  The median age is 45.

Basically, the individuals coming into the position have had a range of experiences, from transportation to law, to private industry, to politics.  Possibly the best of the group was Drew Lewis, appointed by President Reagan.  Forty-nine years old, with no transportation experience, Lewis was a former business executive and political consultant and operative. He had never held elected office.   Within the company of nominated DOT Secretaries, Peter Buttegieg’s resume doesn’t stand out nor is his an outlier.

The Unanswered Question

Mayor Pete is now our Transportation Secretary.  For the reasons stated above, he will have to draw on all of his political skills to move the Department in a direction that aligns with a carbon neutral future.  He will need vision and help. He will have to use all of his God-given smarts.  He will need to be a good listener, but lead he must if he is to succeed.  From the relatively short 55 year history of the cabinet position, nothing in his resume qualifies him or disqualifies him from the job.  In previous administrations, he would be able to sleepwalk his way through it and use it as a steppingstone to higher office or a lucrative career in industry.  In this administration, he will have to work hard to make the kinds of changes that are needed to be made.  I suspect that conversation took place a while ago between the President and Mayor Pete.  For the rest of us, we shall see.