Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act of 2019

Bicyclists on the Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway
Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway, NY / image: Eric Hamilton

State Scenic Byways are roads or highways under federal, state, or local ownership that have been designated by the state through legislation or some other official declaration for their ability to meet one or more of the six intrinsic qualities. Federal guidance identified these intrinsic qualities as scenic, historic, recreational, cultural, archeological, and/or natural. The Scenic Byway program was initiated under the 1992 Federal transportation legislation known as ISTEA. The federal program was discontinued in 2012.

On September 22, 2019 the President signed H.R. 831, Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act of 2019. The act directs the Secretary of Transportation to request nominations for and make determinations regarding roads to be designated under the National Scenic Byway Program. Only roadways already designated as state byways with Corridor Management Plans (CMPs) are eligible to apply.

Because the legislation references National Scenic Byway designation exclusively, it is unclear if byways will be permitted to seek All-American Road (AAR) designation. What is clear is that the scenic byway dedicated federal funding program available when the Federal Scenic Byway Program was initiated in 1992 remains defunct. Scenic Byway organizations continue to be eligible to partner with municipalities and apply for funding under the Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) program for transportation alternatives (TA). Activities eligible for TA funding include scenic pull offs, interpretative signs, and highway beautification projects. Neither corridor management plan preparation nor administrative costs associated with managing a byway are eligible for TA funding (it should be noted that the latter never was eligible for federal funding).

Incentives for becoming a National Scenic Byway include advertising opportunities, exposure on FHWA’s National Scenic Byway website, and the potential to appeal to a tourism community that extends far beyond state boundaries.

Hawks Nest near Sparrowbush, NY, Upper Delaware Scenic Byway, New York State Route 97 – Hancock to Port Jervis, NY / image: David B. Soete

The deadlines described in H.R. 831 are quite tight. Nomination application guidelines are to be issued by the Secretary of Transportation within 90 days of the September 22, 2019 signing. The legislation does not specify calendar days or working days; application guidelines could be made available anytime between December 21, 2019 and January 26, 2020. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is obligated to review the applications and announce the newly designated National Scenic Byways exactly one year after the nomination applications are posted. This ambitious and condensed schedule means that state byways seeking national designation will have a very short window to review, prepare, and submit their nomination application.

State Byways considering the transition from state to federal designation are advised to begin preparations now and be ready to hit the ground running when the nomination application is posted. The National Scenic Byway Foundation—an all-volunteer organization dedicated to amplifying the voice of the national byway community—is actively involved in the new nomination process. The Foundation is working closely with FHWA and offers regular updates on deadlines and criteria for qualifications on their website. The website also has tools and resources for byway organizations, including reports, publications, research, case studies, and training events.

Conversations with “those in the know” suggest that the new designation process will be similar to the old program. The FHWA interim policy on the National Scenic Byway Program was issued in the Federal Register, Volume 60, Number 96 (Thursday May, 18, 1995). The interim policy set forth criteria for National Scenic Byway designation based on a road’s intrinsic qualities. To be nationally designated, a road must significantly meet the criteria for at least one of the six intrinsic qualities. Furthermore, the characteristics associated with the intrinsic qualities should be distinct, representative of the region, and broadly recognized throughout the region. All-American Road (AAR) designation is contingent upon the byway evidencing at least two intrinsic qualities. AAR byways should be nationally significant roads and considered a “destination unto themselves.” Visitors would visit an AAR as the primary purpose of their trip, not as a secondary link between destinations. In addition to possessing intrinsic qualities, the road or highway must safely and conveniently accommodate two-wheel-drive automobiles with standard clearances, tour buses, and pedestrian and bicycle travel—where feasible. Finally, the roadway should be continuous, with few gaps and minimal intrusions into the visitor’s experience.

Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, Great Lakes Seaway Trail, Cape Vincent, NY / image: Rebecca Walker for the Great Lakes Seaway Trail, Inc.

The original application was a two-step process. First, local byway organizations submit documentation to their State Scenic Byway Agency (SSBA) that evidences the byway’s ability to possess the intrinsic qualities necessary to warrant its nomination as a National Scenic Byway. The second step is the nomination package submitted by the SSBA.

The FHWA interim policy provides in-depth descriptions of each of the six intrinsic quality as well as corridor management plan content and preparation guidelines. A de-designation process is also described. This process is used for byways that fail to maintain their intrinsic qualities. And while the FHWA has not yet linked the new application process to their original interim policy, state scenic byway organizations contemplating national designation are well advised to begin their preparations by reviewing that policy.

The ASLA Transportation Professional Practice Network (PPN) is following the National Scenic Byway designation process closely and will continue to report out updates and notifications once the application is posted. Good luck to those seeking national designation, and stay tuned!

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