Transportation can transform an economy
by Randy Mace, MBTA President
Our cover story for this issue highlights Maine’s scenic byways program. Why? Certainly, when it comes to roads, our byways are showstoppers. That, in itself, is worth celebrating. In the case of Maine’s 14 scenic byways, not only do they look good, they provide an important economic benefit to the state and to the communities through which they pass.
Chief among those benefits is the economic development potential that comes with a byway designation. Byways are big tourism lures. They draw travelers from all corners of the country, as well as an increasing number of visitors from beyond our borders, all of whom are looking for an authentic experience in a place that is not defined by shopping malls and outlet stores but where people are shaped by the landscape and find inspiration and make their living in the forest and from the mountains and the sea. Byways offer teaching moments where visitors can experience and learn from the characteristics that make each byway unique – cultural, historic, natural, recreational, archeological and/or scenic qualities that define some of the most remarkable places in our state.
Visitors who seek out Maine’s byways can learn a great deal – whether it is a deeper understanding of the Acadien culture and history while traveling the St. John Valley Cultural Byway that traces the border with Canada in Aroostook County – or experiencing glimpses of the Golden Age along the Acadia All American Road, one of Maine’s four national scenic byways, where wealthy industrialists once built grand summer “cottages” along the rocky coastline.
As Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine office of Tourism, notes in this issue, “byways designation provides all kinds of marketing opportunities.”
Those opportunities include federal funding, a high profile within the tourism and travel community and technical assistance from MaineDOT and other organizations that support federal and state byways programs.
With those opportunities come economic activity. According to A Review of Impact Studies Related to Scenic Byway Designation, a report published by the National Scenic Byways Resource Center (NSBRC), between 19 and 33 jobs are created per $41 million in visitor spending within a byway corridor. For every $1 in byway visitor spending, local and state governments generate between 4¢ and 8¢ in tax revenues. Another study in the NSBRC report estimated average visitor spending annually at $32,000 per byway mile. For local businesses, a byways designation can mean a significant increase in sales: between $740,000 and $1.45 million.
For a state like Maine that relies heavily on its tourism industry for jobs, tax revenue and healthy local economies, our 14 scenic byways represent a wealth of potential.
While the Federal Highway Administration provides the majority of funding and MaineDOT oversees the byways program, responsibility for management of individual byway corridors falls mainly on local grassroots byways groups or partnerships. Those organizations – comprised of residents, officials and business owners from the towns along the route – do the lion’s share of the work to operate the byways day-to-day, season-to-season: from cataloguing points of interest along the way to making decisions on how to market the byway.
While several of Maine’s byways have been around for decades, recent efforts to organize corridor groups and create plans for the state’s newest byways show just how much we have yet to learn to tap their potential. Whether it is efforts by communities along the Grindstone Scenic Byway to expand tourism in a local economy that has been long dominated by papermaking or advocates in Hancock and Washington counties learning how to use social media as an organizational and marketing tool, Maine’s byways are leading the way in transforming our local economies.
Transportation is a two-way street, and scenic byways present a micro view of the value well-planned, well-constructed highways and roads have in connecting communities across the state. They can remind us how important our roads have been throughout history. They don’t just bring tourists, they transport our products – paper, wood pellets, seafood, potatoes and pretty much everything we make and need.
On an even larger scale, traveling on a scenic byway is very much like traveling through small town America. It gives the traveler a chance to slow down, take in the scenery and realize what makes our country great.
These are tough times, and we need to be creative about how we use our resources to help our communities thrive – whether it is our spectacular scenery, cultural heritage or our highway infrastructure. That’s precisely why byways are such a good investment for Maine. It’s also a lesson that will never grow old, and one we can’t afford to forget.
Be sure to carve out time in your year-end calendar for two great transportation events. The Maine Transportation Conference, Thursday, December 1 in Augusta, is fast approaching. The MBTA Holiday Meeting, Thursday, December 8 in Bangor, will be close on its heels. This year, we have great programs for both of these popular events on the MBTA annual calendar.
These gatherings are wonderful opportunities to network with leaders in our field – and a great chance to catch up with associates and friends before the holiday season. I look forward to seeing you at both events.
This is also Super Raffle season, our annual fundraiser for the MBTA Educational Foundation. We are selling just 500 tickets this year, and the winner takes home a $7,000 trip to a location of his or her choice – anywhere in the world. (There are second and third prizes, too.) Be sure to get your ticket early, because they usually sell out. The winner will be announced at the Holiday Meeting.