Congress passes bill to begin scenic byways renaissance
© Getty Images

Under normal circumstances, a traveler might overlook Berlin or Winesburg or Walnut Creek when driving through Ohio. But since the Amish Country Byway was designated a National Scenic Byway, these towns northeast of Columbus have become tourist havens.

And for good reason. The 76-mile long Amish Country Byway is a breath of fresh air that compels you to slow down – and roll your windows down – and stop at roadside stands overflowing with produce, baked goods and homemade furniture.

Unfortunately, the National Scenic Byways Program has been largely dormant since Congress pulled support for it in 2012. But now, with passage this week of the “Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act of 2019,” the secretary of Transportation will start the application process for new byways in the next 90 days and designate a round of new National Scenic Byways within one year.

The legislation’s primary sponsors were Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe On The Money: Senate fails to override Trump veto over border emergency | Trump resort to host G-7 next year | Senators to push Turkey sanctions despite ceasefire | McConnell tees up funding votes MORE (R-Maine) and Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinSenate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' Democrats vow to push for repeal of other Trump rules after loss on power plant rollback Senate Democrats aim to repeal rules blocking Trump tax law workarounds MORE (D-Md.), as well as Reps. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship FTC Democrat raises concerns that government is 'captured' by large tech companies Democrats want Mulvaney to testify in Trump impeachment probe MORE (D-R.I.) and Garret GravesGarret Neal GravesLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Video of young boy shielding Greta Thunberg from photographers goes viral Climate activist Greta Thunberg implores lawmakers to 'listen to the best available science' MORE (R-La.).

Scenic byways are, as George H.W. Bush called them at the outset of the program in 1991, the “roads Americans love.”

As Americans we revere the celebrated Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina and the Route 1 - Big Sur Coast Highway in California, for their unparalled beauty, and we take great pains to make sure the rest of the world sees our natural treasures.

Since the program started, Congress has designated 150 iconic roads in 47 states as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads. At least 44 state scenic byways in 17 states are prepared to seek the national designation when the application process is reopened in the next three months.

The designation has a powerful impact, as scenic byways are proven to attract domestic and international travelers and subsequently are engines of economic growth for the communities they traverse. 

A 2010 University of Minnesota report found the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway and nearby Lake County Scenic Byway generated $21.6 million in economic benefits for rural northern Minnesota communities. Similarly, Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 earned $13 million in local spending, according to a 2013 study.

Sharon Strouse, Amish Country National Scenic Byway leader, and past president of the National Scenic Byway Foundation, says having the National Scenic Byway designation has been a catalyst for increased prosperity in her community.

She said it’s also been a point of pride for local residents, “that they live in a special place recognized by others,” leading to benefits for local non-profits and museums, which have seen increases in visitation, new events, new exhibits and an influx of new volunteers.

Strouse, who lives in Millersburg, added that it also means economic growth in Ohio as, “local and outside investors were more willing to finance restaurants, hotels, shops, entertainment, as well as travel industry services which over time has led to exponential community growth, jobs and prosperity.”

An important part of the legislation is how the new program requires development of a new tool to measure the economic impact of byways. As Bob Haynes with Maine’s Old Canada Road Scenic Byway notes, “this would create a uniform matrix for judging economic value across the country.”

Since there hasn’t been a new byway designated since 2009, we expect publicity around the program’s revival to give a boost to existing byways.

You’ll doubtless hear more about the epic San Juan Skyway that snakes through 14,000-foot peaks, Indian pueblos and Victorian towns in southwest Colorado. Floridians will talk about the Big Bend Scenic Byway, which cuts a 220-mile path through central Florida, where the Apalachicola National Forest boasts the largest population of the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, as well as the Dwarf Cypress Dome, trees over 300 years old but topping out at no more than 15 feet tall.

Most importantly, the Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act will also stir interest (and maybe some friendly competition) in proposed new National Scenic Byways. You can certainly expect to hear talk about the worthiness of the Cumberland Historic Byway in Tennessee, Maryland’s C&O Canal Scenic Byway and the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway in Maine. Stakeholders in those areas will have the opportunity to apply for federal grant funding to increase marketing efforts and improve the visitor experience of their byways.

And on your next vacation you may think to drive the Zion Park Scenic Byway in Utah, and when you see its unique and wonderful vistas you may be inclined to ask yourself whether this will be the next designated National Scenic Byway!

Mark Falzone is President of Scenic America, the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the visual character of America’s roadways, countryside and communities.