Next Transportation Bill Should Say Bye-Bye to Byways

Since 1991 the Scenic Byways Program has been redirecting federal gas tax revenue from funding national highways to funding scenic byways. USA Today reports that federal and conservation officials are protesting the House of Representatives American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs bill, which is now in limbo, that proposes to eliminate byway funding from the next transportation bill.

The House bill is controversial for other reasons. Its proposal to move transit funding from the transportation trust fund supported by gas taxes into the general appropriation process drew howls of protest from transit advocates. Transit should not be supported by gas taxes; however, at least transit’s primary purpose is to move people from point A to point B. The same cannot be said for the Scenic Byways Program.

There are at least three major problems with federal funding for the National Scenic Byways Program. First program funds are dedicated. Municipalities cannot spend these federal resources on other uses. If a state has its own scenic byways program, the state cannot redirect federal funds to interstate highways. This has two perverse effects. First, it encourages states not to spend state money on local priorities. Second, it reduces funding for critical infrastructure.

Second, scenic byways are local roads that should be funded at the local level. National highways move people and goods throughout the country. Byways provide access to local recreational areas. Many states including Georgia, Vermont, and Washington already have state scenic byway programs. These states will likely continue funding byways even without a national program.

Third, these byways have nothing to do with transportation. Byways must be regionally significant in one of the following characteristics: archaeological, cultural, historical, natural, recreational, or scenic. As the USA Today explains most Scenic Byways are used for recreation and tourism purposes:

The program has awarded $470 million in grants to help create safety improvements, facilities, resource protection and marketing for the USA’s 150 scenic byways, says Anaise Berry, president of the National Scenic Byway Foundation and director of the 291-mile Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway.

“This is an economic development program,” Berry says. “It’s not just a matter of placing signs along the road. … It creates jobs and attracts small business.”

If national policymakers want to create an Economic Development fund and can find some user supported tax to fund these projects, then the federal government can support this program. But taking money from national important transportation resources and giving them to local economic development projects is not the purpose of a national transportation bill. With our growing national debt, it is also a program we can no longer afford. The next long-term transportation bill should eliminate the Scenic Byways Program.