ST. PAUL — The natural beauty visible and historic sites accessible via the nationally recognized scenic byway beginning in Minnesota have earned it a new distinction from the federal government.
Federal transit authorities on Tuesday, Feb. 16 proclaimed sections of the Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi River all the way to Louisiana, as "All-American Roads." They are among the first roads to receive such a designation in more than a decade.
"We are really pleased about that," Chris Miller, director of the Mississippi River Parkway Commission of Minnesota, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
The Federal Highway Administration hasn't issued added new roads to its scenic byway inventory since 2009, nor has it upgraded the classifications of those it already contains. An act of Congress passed in 2019 sought to change that and culminated Tuesday with FHWA's the designation of 49 roads in 28 states.
Sections of the Great River Road highlighted Tuesday were included in the "America's Byways" inventory even before then but were listed as "National Scenic Byways." Their upgrade to All-American Road-status signifies that they possess characteristics of archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and, of course, scenic significance.
"To be designated a National Scenic Byway, a road must possess characteristics of regional significance within at least one of the intrinsic qualities. All-American Roads must possess characteristics of national significance in at least two of the intrinsic qualities," FHWA spokesperson Doug Hecox said in an email.
The Mississippi River Parkway Commission of Minnesota, which oversees the promotion and preservation of the state's share of the Great River Road, pointed to the byway's proximity to sights as Lake Itasca and Charles Lindbergh's house in nominating it for a new designation. A total of eight states through which the road runs, including Minnesota, also nominated their own sections of it.
All eight — Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Tennessee and Wisconsin — got what they were after Tuesday. Missouri and Mississippi, the other two Great River Road states, may nominate their sections of the byway in the future should the opportunity arise, according to Miller, though the former did secure an All-American designation for its share of U.S. Route 66.
Funding opportunities for the communities and organizations dotting the Great River Road may present themselves in the near future, also for the first time in some years. Congress in December approved $16 million in grants for the byways program as part of its spending bill for 2021.
Just who receives the grants and how they will be doled out has yet to be determined, according to Rebecca Aloisi, of the non-profit group Scenic America. The last time the federal government offered funding through the program was in 2012, she said.
"This is a great way to bring resources into communities," Aloisi said, particularly in smaller cities and towns.