ELLSWORTH, Maine — If a transportation bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives is approved as written, it could mean the end of a federal program that has brought $5 million to rural Maine over the past two decades.
In Maine, there are 14 scenic byways, each of which is managed by a committee of residents and stakeholders who aim to attract tourists by improving and promoting the scenic roads. Since 1993, the byways have received more than $5.7 million in National Scenic Byway funds from the Federal Highway Administration.
But a provision in the proposed American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012, introduced by U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, could eliminate the National Scenic Byway program. The bill, which is hundreds of pages long, contains one line that says if the bill is approved, the 21-year-old federal program would be repealed.
Fred Michaud, policy analyst for the Maine Department of Transportation, said Tuesday that elimination of the federal program would jeopardize tourism development efforts in more isolated parts of the state.
“It’s going to be tough,” Michaud said. “It is not a regulatory program. It truly is an economic development program. Most of [the byways] are in rural areas.”
Among the 14 byways in Maine are the Pequawket Trail along Route 113 between Standish and Gilead near the New Hampshire border, sections of Routes 1 and 161 between Hamlin and Allagash in Aroostook County, and parts of Routes 1, 187 and 191 in coastal Washington County. All 14 byways would be financially affected by elimination of the federal byways program, according to officials.
The $5.7 million in federal byway money that has been spent in Maine over the past 19 years has been divided among more than 80 projects that range from road improvements, construction of facilities such as roadside turnouts with signs and restrooms, and development of management plans, among other uses.
According to Michaud, the federal program distributes $40 million a year in grants to scenic byway projects nationwide. He said there are approximately 150 designated byways throughout the United States. Byway organizations have to submit applications for the grants, which are awarded on a competitive basis.
Out of the 14 scenic byways in Maine, there are 10 state designated byways, three more listed as National Scenic Byways, and one All-American Road. The All-American Road is located on Mount Desert Island, including part that runs through Acadia National Park. The National Scenic Byways are in eastern coastal Hancock County, along Route 201 in northern Somerset County, and along parts of Routes 4 and 17 near Rangeley in Franklin County.
Michaud said the different designations are used only for promotional purposes and that all 14 compete on equal footing for Federal Highway Administration funds. In 2011, Maine received more than $200,000 in federal money for byway projects in Aroostook, Hancock and Washington counties.
“A lot of [the funding is used] to revitalize plans, like the Old Canada Road [Route 201],” Michaud said. “They’ve gone 10 years without a modern plan. Rangeley is in the same position.”
Byway projects in Maine funded for 2012 include two planning grants, each for $100,000, for the Grindstone Scenic Byway in the Millinocket area and the Bold Coast byway in coastal Washington County. Of those grants, $80,000 comes from the Federal Highway Administration while MDOT and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development each contribute $10,000.
“If that [federal] funding source goes away, I don’t know where the [missing] funds would come from,” Fred Michaud said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, whose district includes nearly all of Maine’s scenic byways, said Tuesday in a prepared statement that he is opposed to the bill. He said the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, of which he is a member, considered the bill last week.
The lawmaker said the program has helped provide access to some of the most scenic views in Maine and that he will try to make sure the program is not eliminated.
“I voted against the bill and have concerns with a number of provisions, including the elimination of the National Scenic Byways Program,” Michaud said. ”If Maine is going to continue to be a destination for visitors from throughout the country, we cannot just turn our back on initiatives with a proven record of success.”
A Senate version of the transportation funding bill has not yet been introduced, but Sen. Olympia Snowe released a statement Tuesday indicating that she will work to preserve the program. The program served Maine residents and tourists by helping to preserve Maine’s iconic landscapes and natural resources, she said.
“These funds have made great strides in Maine over the years by boosting economic growth in the tourism industry and ensuring access to the state’s scenic routes,” Snowe said.
Mark Marston, an East Millinocket selectman who has been involved with the Grindstone byway, said Tuesday that the program has helped bring area officials and businesses together to promote the region. As the mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket have employed fewer and fewer people, he said, tourism has become more important to communities in the area.
If Congress eventually approves the House version of the bill, Marston said, it would set back efforts by those involved with the byway to diversify the economy of Katahdin region.
“I’m hoping this bill doesn’t go through,” Marston said. “I’m quite worried about it.”
Jim Fisher, a planner with the Hancock County Planning Commission, said Tuesday that the program has helped with infrastructure improvements along Route 1 and in some of the villages of the Schoodic Peninsula. The Schoodic Byway, he said, has helped draw more tourists to Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro, which suffered in the wake of the 2002 closing of a Navy base at the tip of the peninsula. The populations of the two towns each dropped by several hundred residents — Winter Harbor’s by nearly half — between 2000 and 2010.
“Winter Harbor’s population was decimated,” Fisher said. “We’ve [since] seen some improvement for the businesses down there.”
John Noll, Eastern Maine Development Corp. program manager, said Tuesday that he has been involved with managing the Grindstone byway and the Seboomook byway in the Greenville area.
Noll said there are people who purposefully seek out scenic byways when planning their vacations. Much of the federal funds the Maine byways have received has been used for designing and maintaining websites, producing and installing interpretive signs, and printing and distributing brochures, all of which helps draw tourists to the byways and nearby communities, he said.
“Marketing is such a big part of the program,” Noll said. “If these funds go away and there’s nothing to replace them, it’s going to have an impact on people visiting the areas.”
According to some people knowledgeable about the bill, the House could vote on it as early as next week.
To view a map of Maine’s scenic byways, click here. Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.