6. Designation Thresholds
How do we encourage that future submissions are the best of the best?
America's Byways® should represent the best of the best of the six intrinsic qualities found on and along the highways and byways of the United States. As the America's Byways® collection grows in size and stature, expectations of the byway travelers will grow as well.
Breaching whales, seas of prairie grass, class A rapids, quaint colonial villages, adobe pueblos and defining moments of the American Experience—each of these, and so many more, are showcased through the America's Byways® collection. The richness of these resources and how they will be protected and promoted are important considerations for designation under the National Scenic Byways Program.
How does the National Scenic Byways Program (NSBP) encourage the submission of nomination applications that are the best of the best? Over time, there has been much discussion about the quality of the collection. This issue paper discusses whether changes should be made to the current nomination requirements to enhance the quality of future submissions for consideration for national designation.
Expectations of the byways have increased.
Greater awareness of the Program and its goals, examples from maturing byways and byway organizations, technical assistance, publications, best practices, and national and regional conferences have all raised the baseline expectations for new byways.
The NSBP has a nomination process that establishes a designation threshold.
Currently, consideration for national designation includes the following:
- Designation as a State, Indian tribe, or Federal land management agency scenic byway.
- Preparation of a corridor management plan that complies with the legislation and policy guiding the National Scenic Byways Program.
- Preparation of materials and submission of an application to either the State or Indian tribe scenic byway coordinator.
- Determination by the either the State or Indian tribe that the application is appropriate and submission of the nomination materials to FHWA.
- Designation by the Secretary of Transportation based on recommendations prepared and advanced by National Scenic Byways Program staff and informed by a panel of experts.
This process establishes a set of steps that all potential byways must follow for national designation—a chain of actions. Requirements are outlined for each step of the process. The process, in theory, was designed so that that there are sufficient steps to ensure that ineligible roads do not achieve national designation.
Designation thresholds for State byways may limit the pool of eligible byways advanced for national consideration.
State byway programs and policies, and their interpretation of the six intrinsic qualities, vary among the States. Such interpretations may limit the breadth of byways from some States or, over time as they become established, Indian tribe byway programs. Continued preference for routes that are "scenic" and concern regarding the eligibility of "non-scenic" routes representing the other five intrinsic qualities continue to impact the decisions made by many States regarding eligible byways. This bias, by default and process, tends to put more emphasis on the scenic intrinsic quality for roads nominated by the States for inclusion in the America's Byways® collection. This bias means that many nationally designated roads will offer a certain degree of scenic quality. Given that most travelers enjoy a pleasing landscape, such weighting toward scenery does not adversely affect the quality of the collection. However, it could be argued that the emphasis on scenic quality might be preventing potentially eligible byways from applying for national designation because, despite exceptional natural, recreational, historical, cultural, or archaeological resources, they find it difficult to achieve the first level of State designation due to this scenic bias.
Corridor management plans have varying degrees of detail.
The Interim Policy lists fourteen issues that must be addressed in a corridor management plan (CMP) that is submitted as part of a nomination for national designation, but it does not set any minimum standards or provide examples. Similarly, the Federal Highway Administration considers these required components in reviewing nominations, but has not defined any additional specifications regarding the corridor management plan. FHWA does not evaluate the quality of a CMP in its nomination deliberations, relying instead on State and local determinations as to whether the plan is adequate. The only requirement from FHWA's viewpoint is that the fourteen points listed in the Interim Policy are addressed: a plan that does not address all fourteen points may be rejected, but FHWA will not reject a plan that does address all fourteen points, regardless of its level of quality and detail compared to other CMPs.
As a result, the CMPs submitted for review vary widely in detail and quality. The byway communities have sometimes produced plans that are overly dense, wordy, and unnecessarily complicated to meet the requirements set forth in the Interim Policy, but some of the most effective corridor management plans have been concise and to the point. It is also true that the nature of identified intrinsic qualities, and the needs to preserve and promote them, vary widely by byway, with some nominations meeting the objectives of the CMP process with relatively simple plans. Nonetheless, without a clear definition of either how the fourteen points should be addressed or how the plan will be used, there is little connection between the quality of the CMP and the quality of the byway.
The designation threshold is no guarantee of future quality.
All of America's Byways® are admitted to the collection through a uniform application and review process. Currently, many nationally designated byways showcase exceptional scenery, fascinating historic sites, and challenging physical experiences—each offering the byway traveler an opportunity to engage fully in the route, its themes and stories. Some byways no longer present the high level of resources for which they were first designated. Some byways were designated for exceptional intrinsic qualities that are now at risk of loss or encroachment despite CMP goals to protect these resources. By contrast, others with minimal visitor resources at the time of designation have secured NSBP grant funds and State and local funds to develop interpretive centers, build wildlife viewing platforms, and secure historic sites. Still others have proactively worked with their State DOT to develop special management policies for their byways, while others have had little contact with their State DOT since their route was designated.
Thresholds should continue to represent the baseline facilities and resources needed to promote and protect the intrinsic qualities for which the byway is designated. Many byways have exceeded designation thresholds. NSBP technical assistance and byway best practices, conferences, and trainings continue to raise the "threshold" among byways designated during earlier rounds.
The Program could consider the adoption of a minimum set of State and Indian tribe byway designation standards.
Since not all States or Indian tribes have rigorous designation processes, the Federal Highway Administration might review the State and Indian tribe designation requirements and processes and perhaps establish a certain minimum level of rigor from all State and Indian tribe programs. Given the grassroots nature of the Program and the degree to which it has historically deferred to local and State preferences, such a change in direction would need to be carefully considered. However, if weaknesses in some State or Indian tribe designation processes are creating obstacles to improving the quality of the America's Byways® collection, the Federal Highway Administration should consider proposing minimum State and Indian tribe designation standards.
Such minimum State and Indian tribe designation standards would impact the designation of State and Indian tribe byways at the first level. This step might encourage States and Indian tribes with loosely defined designation processes to ensure that all byways are of high quality. It must also be acknowledged that the adoption and management of a State or Indian tribe byway program is under the jurisdiction of that State or Indian tribe; it is not the jurisdiction of the Federal Highway Administration. Interference from the Federal government in State or Tribal byway programs is not likely to be welcomed. On the other hand, States and Indian tribes that do not have a byway program, or that would like to improve their designation process, might welcome a package of information that summarizes how other States or Indian tribes manage their byway programs.
Corridor management plans could be more carefully defined.
Corridor management plan requirements might have more specific guidelines as to how the plan itself ensures that the byway is of high quality. Corridor plans might be required to not only meet the fourteen points but also to demonstrate to a more specific degree the ways in which the byway is the best of the best.
The Program could adopt more rigorous standards for regional and national significance.
The Program might add more detail and specificity to the ways in which local groups should evaluate and demonstrate regional and national significance. Existing national and international designation and recognition programs such as Federally recognized Wilderness Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Register and National Historic Landmark listings, National Heritage Areas, International Biospheres and World Heritage sites, as well as recognized professional and scientific designations, such as National Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks, American Institute of Architects and American Society of Landscape Architects recognized sites, would be useful, established, and independent tools or thresholds to measure regional or national significance.