JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – The Crowley's Ridge Parkway weavesthrough eastern Arkansas, spanning eight counties. It is one of two nationalscenic byways in the state.
Its local supporters, however, fear for the future of thetourism region in Arkansas. A pair of transportation bills are making their waythrough Congress, and the House version threatens to end the National ScenicByways grant program.
"It really is a program that contributes to the livabilityand sustainability of many of these small communities," Dr. Ruth Hawkins said.
Hawkins is the executive director of the Arkansas DeltaByways, a 15-county region linked by the Great River Road and the Crowley'sRidge Parkway. Communities in Clay, Craighead, Cross, Greene, Lee, Phillips,Poinsett and St. Francis counties have received millions of dollars from thebyways.
"We have directly received grants in the amount of about $20million and then leveraged another $20 million," Hawkins noted, "so really it'smeant an investment of about $40 million in just the Arkansas Delta Bywaysregion."
Hawkins says that significant investment comes courtesy ofthe National Scenic Byways program, which is currently under fire on CapitolHill.
"Congress is, right now, looking at the renewal of thetransportation bill for the next few years," Hawkins explained.
She has kept a close watch on the House version, as it endsall designations, technical assistance and funding for the scenic bywaysprogram.
"The House measure is the one that we're most concernedabout because it just totally does away with the program," Hawkins said.
She says the Senate version allows the name to stand butpulls the plug on grant money set aside specifically for byway projects. Sheadds that lawmakers should see the benefits of the program before supportingthis measure.
She points to statistics from the Crowley's Ridge Parkwayarea, showing a 17.68 percent increase in visitors, a 17.03 percent bump intravel-related jobs and 72.03 percent hike in travel-related payroll since itwas named a National Scenic Byway. She says, however, the grants do more thansimply allow communities to capitalize on their heritage.
"Again, (it's) a small program but a significant program interms of what it's done both monetarily and in terms of developing a sense ofpride and hope for this region," Hawkins said. "It's really given people asense of pride that, hey, we really do have something here."
According to Congressman Rick Crawford's office, the Housebill is "effectively dead." Justin Gibbs, Crawford's press secretary, sentinformation Tuesday that the House will now consider a short-term extension ofthe current highway funding bill. That would remain the money for the NationalScenic Byways Program intact.
How the Senate will respond is unclear. It recently approveda $109 billion highway bill that House members decided to forgo passing.