Byway designation an economic catalyst

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The program would help fund maintenance and repairs.

The National Scenic Byways Program arose from Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification campaign. It promotes roads of special distinction possessing one or more “intrinsic qualities,” such as natural, scenic, historic, cultural, recreational and/or archeological. The byways program respects the roads it designates. In Maine, the program pledges to “promote economic prosperity” by showcasing roads “through a sustainable balance of conservation and land use.”

Getting into this program isn’t easy. In more than 30 years, Maine has had nine byways. After three years of advocacy, the possibility exists for a tenth byway.

The Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, in partnership with the Western Maine Cultural Alliance and Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission, received a grant from Maine’s Department of Transportation to prepare an eligibility application for state byways designation covering Route 113 from Standish to Gilead and Route 2 from Gilead to Bethel. WMCA’s focus is the northern end; Fryeburg to Bethel.

The 1995 White House Conference on Travel and Tourism defined cultural tourism as “travel directed toward experiencing the arts, heritage and special character of a place.” Along with seasonal residents, cultural tourists form a major audience for scenic byways. This new byway could draw cultural tourists into western Maine, providing a critical mass for its creative economy.

Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway achieved designation in 2000. According to Director Rebecca Kurtz, the “designation has been a gift to residents of the Rangeley region. It has given the region unprecedented access to Scenic Byway funds for corridor improvements while increasing its effectiveness in campaigning for regular maintenance and reconstruction funds.”

More than $750,000 has been awarded this road and, Kurtz said, “for a community that wants to improve aesthetic appearance, increase vehicular and passenger safety, and compete more effectively for regular maintenance and repairs, the National Scenic Byway program is a terrific partner.”

For a small town struggling with road maintenance costs, a qualifying corridor can be a remarkable gift.

On its northern end, Route 113 passes through the White Mountain National Forest and the spectacular vista at Evans Notch, which hosts multi-use enjoyment all year round. According to MDOT’s latest data, between 2002 and 2004, visitors enjoyed it very safely. No pedestrians, bikers, snow sleds or ATVs were involved in accidents on Route 113 between Fryeburg and Gilead during this period. Even if byways’ designation generated 1,000 more cars over the 200 day period the notch is open, it would only mean five additional cars per day. Still, safety improvements within the context of the road’s unique character are highly desirable.

MDOT engineers detailed how safety upgrades can be made without impacting the road’s character. However, without byways designation, Evans Notch, despite its exceptional beauty, is a low use, minor collector. Ironically, safety upgrades cannot get attention unless the road is a byway.

Among its many advantages, byway designation is a powerful source of community pride.

Byway designation has nothing to do with zoning. Nor is it an additional layer of bureaucracy. A byways management plan is a grassroots vision created by the corridor community. Jim Fisher, Hancock County Planning Commission, has raised more than $1 million for Schoodic National Byway. “The program itself becomes a catalyst around which community organizations develop productive partnerships,” Fisher said.

Toni Seger is the founder and director of the Western Maine Cultural Alliance.

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