If you ever travel through northeast Florida between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach, do yourself a favor: get off Interstate 95 and go east to Florida Highway A1A to enjoy one of the finest shoreline drives you’ll find anywhere.
I will admit to some bias. My family has owned a vacation home in this area for many years, and we spent most of our kids’ school breaks exploring the region’s sand, surf, salt marshes and historic sites. But you don’t have to take my word that this detour is worth your time; Uncle Sam has made it official by including a 72-mile stretch of A1A in the National Scenic Byways Program.
The program, established in 1991 to preserve and promote the nation’s most beautiful highways and back roads, may soon fall victim to the federal government’s financial problems. A single line in a massive highway bill now making its way through the House of Representatives, H.R. 7, would eliminate the entire program. That would be overkill, and it would be a shame to stand by and let it happen. Some of my neighbors in Florida have organized an email campaign targeting the region’s representatives in Washington to try to keep the program alive. After all, how much need it cost to award a title and maintain a list of highways worthy of our attention?
Florida’s A1A Scenic & Historic Coastal Byway is, indeed, worthy of attention. Coastal stretches are joined by inlets, parks, oak and pine forests, a Spanish fort, and historically rich St. Augustine. Anne Wilson, president of Friends of A1A, told The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “People know when they see the (scenic byways) designation that they will have a great drive. Even the Harley-Davidson website tells motorcyclists that The Loop and Scenic A1A are the best motorcycle rides in Florida.”
The best things in life are not necessarily free, even if they are sometimes cheap. The federal government handed out $40 million in grants for scenic byways in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30. This is chicken feed in the federal budget, but I understand that when a country is as deep in the financial hole as we are, you need to plug the small leaks as well as the big gashes in the hull. So I’m willing to live without the money that has provided amenities like the self-guided cellphone tour of more than 100 points of interest on our stretch of A1A. This does not mean that we must kill the entire program. There are other models that could keep federal spending to a minimum.
The National Park Service already runs the National Register of Historic Places. Sites included in the register are recognized as having historical, archaeological or architectural significance. They can be found in a searchable database by history and architecture buffs who might wish to visit them. Yet the program’s only major federal cost is in the form of tax incentives for preservation efforts, which do not apply to the byways program.
Another example is UNESCO’s World Heritage Program. Its World Heritage List includes both cultural and natural sites that the United Nations World Heritage Committee judges to have “outstanding universal value.” While UNESCO cannot dictate how these properties are managed, its endorsement encourages tourism and local conservation efforts. The committee also maintains a “World Heritage In Danger” list. This list includes sites threatened by war, natural disasters, pollution, unchecked tourist development, and other forces that threaten to erode the nature of the places in question. The idea of the list is to focus the work of preservationists worldwide on those sites most in danger of irreparable damage or decay.
Similarly, maintaining the scenic byways program, even without significant federal grants, would encourage state and local governments to place greater value on the routes and their surroundings than they might otherwise.
The fate of the National Scenic Byways Program rests on a small line item in a bill with many concerns. Striking that line item would be an easy and low-cost way for Congress to help local communities nationwide. For the rest of us, the federal byways designation can continue to serve as an invitation to get off the beaten path and onto a more scenic one.