Oberstar designates scenic byways center in Duluth

WASHINGTON (AP) — Duluth, Minn., may be off the beaten track to much of America. But it may soon be the center of attention when it comes to the new national scenic byway system.
The House’s highway bill includes $9 million to establish a Center for National Scenic Byways in Duluth to advise other communities in establishing and promoting new scenic byways, a designation for roads considered of special interest to tourists.
With modern communications technology, there’s no reason not to have the facility in Duluth, said Michelle Johnson, a planner for the Duluth-based Arrowhead Regional Development Commission.
“People can access us as easily as they could access something in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “We’re in the heartland of our nation. We have the background and understanding of rural America.”
The $9 million provision, which critics say is an example of wasteful spending in the bill, is the work of the region’s congressman, Rep. Jim Oberstar, who is the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.
The money for the Duluth facility is in addition to nearly $80 million worth of special road construction projects that Oberstar earmarked in the bill for the Eighth District.
Citizens Against Government Waste, one of several groups attacking the bill as laden with unneeded spending, on Tuesday listed the Duluth center and a $12 million transportation research institute proposed at the University among several dozen examples of what the group said were pork-barrel projects.
“There’s enough pork in here to feed an army,” said Thomas Schatz, president of the group.
The Duluth center was the idea of personnel with the Arrowhead commission who helped develop the Edge of the Wilderness road in Itasca County, one of 20 national scenic byways in the country. They would staff the proposed national center.
“This will help other areas (of the country) who want to do the same thing,” Oberstar spokeswoman Mary Kerr said.
Thirty-nine additional roads have been nominated to the Transportation Department for designation as scenic byways. The first scenic byways were designated in 1996.
The 47-mile Edge of the Wilderness road runs from Grand Rapids to Effie and is marked by 22 panels intended to help motorists appreciate the area’s history, culture and ecology. Plans are underway for an Internet site to be managed by a local high school.
The Duluth facility would begin with a staff of three or four people, said Johnson.
The House is expected to pass the highway bill easily this week despite the criticism of the earmarked projects.
One of the bill’s most vocal critics, Rep. David Minge, D-Minn., said the bill threatens to take away money that is needed for education and other purposes.
Minnesota would get $189 million in special road projects under the bill, according to an official list released late last week. Oberstar’s district, one of eight in the state, would get $77 million of those.