Cedar Rapids gets its money for skywalk

Marion, Robins and Hiawatha vote 'no'

The Skywalk in downtown Cedar Rapids near TrueNorth on Thursday, January 7, 2010. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The Skywalk in downtown Cedar Rapids near TrueNorth on Thursday, January 7, 2010. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — When you got the votes you got the votes.

That was Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson’s take on Thursday as the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization board agreed to steer $1.4 million in transportation funds that it controls to Cedar Rapids’ downtown skywalk system.

The CMPO board vote to add a link to the Cedar Rapids skywalk was 14-7. Oleson, a Marion resident, and CMPO board members representing the cities of Marion, Hiawatha and Robins voted against the project. Representatives from Fairfax and Ely didn’t attend.

Thirteen of the 23 CMPO board seats are controlled by the city of Cedar Rapids and all 13 are filled by city employees or City Council members.

They voted as a block for the skywalk funding, joined by Linn County Supervisor Lu Barron, a Cedar Rapids resident.

John Bender, retired president of engineering firm Ament Inc., city engineer for Hiawatha and a Marion representative to the CMPO, said the CMPO member jurisdictions have $6 million in street projects that the CMPO has ranked as important and are ready to be built. Money going to the downtown Cedar Rapids skywalk should go to one of those, he said.

The $1.44 million in CMPO funds approved for the section of skywalk — which will go from Cedar Rapids’ new parking ramp across from the city’s convention center and hotel to the skywalk connection at US Bank on Third Street SE — had been intended for improvements on 33rd Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids.

Dave Elgin, Cedar Rapids’ public works director, said the CMPO board in the past has allowed member jurisdictions to shift funding to other projects within a jurisdiction in the past, and he pointed to a Marion project as a case in point.

Bender, though, said the CMPO board practice had been to put funds not used for approved projects back in the “hopper,” so jurisdictions could have their approved projects compete for it.

Oleson asked if the skywalk project had been scored using the CMPO rating system, and Thomas Smith, a Cedar Rapids city planner and planning staff member for the CMPO, said the skywalk project scored poorly, but he said the rating system is designed for streets and trails and not for something like a skywalk.

Barron said the CMPO had used funds in the past to support sculptures at The Eastern Iowa Airport even though that spending did not fare well in the organization’s scoring system.

Marion City Council member Cody Crawford said the Cedar Rapids skywalk might be great for downtown Cedar Rapids, but it did not help a regional transportation organization. Crawford said the skywalk was really an accessory to the city’s new parking ramp and should have been funded by the city as part of the ramp project.

Elgin said the city decided to substitute the skywalk project for the 33rd Avenue SW project after the cold, snowy winter made it clear that the city needed to connect the new parking ramp and a second one along with the city’s hotel and convention center to the rest of the skywalk system.

Oleson still questioned the way the city hustled the project through the CMPO’s competitive process for projects.

“You can do it because you have the majority,” Oleson told the Cedar Rapids members of CMPO board.

Jasmine Almoayed, economic development liaison for the city of Cedar Rapids and a CMPO board member, said 8,000 people work in the heart of the downtown, and some of those employees live in the metro area communities outside of Cedar Rapids. The downtown skywalk does benefit the metro area, she said.

Two years ago, the Cedar Rapids majority on the CMPO board decided that 80 percent of the $4 million in federal gas-tax funds it gets to spend a year should go to trails and 20 percent to streets, a change which angered cities like Hiawatha and Robins that had counted on the money to support their local street projects.

Cedar Rapids’ Elgin said the skywalk was not a trail, though it will be used by a lot of walkers, he said.

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