Delta projects threatened by National Scenic Byways changes - KAIT Jonesboro, AR - Region 8 News, weather, sports

Delta projects threatened by National Scenic Byways changes

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – The Crowley's Ridge Parkway weaves through eastern Arkansas, spanning eight counties. It is one of two national scenic byways in the state.

Its local supporters, however, fear for the future of the tourism region in Arkansas. A pair of transportation bills are making their way through Congress, and the House version threatens to end the National Scenic Byways grant program.

"It really is a program that contributes to the livability and sustainability of many of these small communities," Dr. Ruth Hawkins said.

Hawkins is the executive director of the Arkansas Delta Byways, a 15-county region linked by the Great River Road and the Crowley's Ridge Parkway. Communities in Clay, Craighead, Cross, Greene, Lee, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis counties have received millions of dollars from the byways.

"We have directly received grants in the amount of about $20 million and then leveraged another $20 million," Hawkins noted, "so really it's meant an investment of about $40 million in just the Arkansas Delta Byways region."

Hawkins says that significant investment comes courtesy of the National Scenic Byways program, which is currently under fire on Capitol Hill.

"Congress is, right now, looking at the renewal of the transportation bill for the next few years," Hawkins explained.

She has kept a close watch on the House version, as it ends all designations, technical assistance and funding for the scenic byways program.

"The House measure is the one that we're most concerned about because it just totally does away with the program," Hawkins said.

She says the Senate version allows the name to stand but pulls the plug on grant money set aside specifically for byway projects. She adds that lawmakers should see the benefits of the program before supporting this measure.

She points to statistics from the Crowley's Ridge Parkway area, showing a 17.68 percent increase in visitors, a 17.03 percent bump in travel-related jobs and 72.03 percent hike in travel-related payroll since it was named a National Scenic Byway. She says, however, the grants do more than simply allow communities to capitalize on their heritage.

"Again, (it's) a small program but a significant program in terms of what it's done both monetarily and in terms of developing a sense of pride and hope for this region," Hawkins said. "It's really given people a sense of pride that, hey, we really do have something here."

According to Congressman Rick Crawford's office, the House bill is "effectively dead." Justin Gibbs, Crawford's press secretary, sent information Tuesday that the House will now consider a short-term extension of the current highway funding bill. That would remain the money for the National Scenic Byways Program intact.

How the Senate will respond is unclear. It recently approved a $109 billion highway bill that House members decided to forgo passing.

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