Iowa DOT Director: State's road system will shrink

Trombino's comments sparked national conversation.

The state’s top transportation official, Paul Trombino, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, has been candid in his assessment of the road system here.

With 114,000 miles of roads, 25,000 bridges and 4,000 miles of rails, the system is simply not sustainable, it’s not affordable to maintain and it will get smaller; in fact it already is shrinking, he said.

“We have to shrink the system, but we can still offer more choices, a higher level of service, and better connections than we have today,” Trombino told The Gazette last week.

Trombino’s proposition is to rethink the transportation system and set priorities.

Iowa needs to focus on maintaining existing roads and bridges in good and fair condition, while deciding which of those in poor condition can be retired. Meanwhile, the state needs to study and invest in better connections, whether it be roads, public transit, bike lanes or multimodal facilities, to more seamlessly move people and products.

Trombino said he’s repeated this theme across the state before chambers of commerce, economic development groups, and a couple of weeks ago to attendees of an Urban Land Institute meeting in Windsor Heights.

Trombino didn’t see his comments as new, so he was surprised when they gained steam nationally in social media and blogs in the days since.

The reason it went viral: Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based non-profit advocating for more thoughtful transportation spending as an element of building stronger communities.

Marohn was also speaking at the event. Marohn said he was “stunned” — not because of what was said but because of who said it.

“Director Trombino is the first person at his level I’ve heard say this and be pretty unambiguous about it,” Marohn told The Gazette. “It was a game changing kind of moment.”

Marohn blogged about it on his website, which sparked comments, retweets, Facebook posts and other bloggers to pick up on the subject.

“To me, the acknowledgment that the system is going to retract reframes the public debate and discussion in a away that is healthy,” Marohn said. “If you realize the system is going to get smaller, talking about making it bigger will come across as the absurdity it already is. If we can’t maintain what we have already, how are we going to maintain what we add? Talk of adding new stuff becomes silly talk.”

Trombino said Iowa’s network built in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s brought “profound prosperity” to the state, such as through farm-to-market roads.

How the transportation system is used today, though, has changed drastically in the last 50-100 years, he said.

Transportation planners need to take a closer look at the crumbling roads and bridges, and not just fix the worst ones, he said. Instead, look at how people and products will move in the future, and decide which roads are needed and which can be phased out, he said.

“We have to make tough choices on the system,” Trombino said. “We can either let the system degrade, which in our case has happened already in some places, and you’d be left with something. But, that doesn’t provide you with the choices you really need.”

“What I’m advocating is — and people expect us to be leaders — lets figure out what are the pieces we really want, which roads and bridges. Identify those, and make the best choices for the region and state,” he said.

Trombino acknowledges the philosophy is not a one-size fits all.

As part of its $3.2 billion five-year highway plan, fueled by $500 million in new money from a gas tax hike earlier this year, the Iowa DOT plans to add lanes to key corridors, including Highways 30, 20 and 61, and Interstate 29, and, likely in years to come, Interstates 80 and 380.

There will be points of constraint or bottlenecks that warrant adding to the system, he said. He’s also not ready to declare what are the roads Iowa can do without.

“We are still working on a number of projects outside our five-year plan, but the question is do we really need to add more work, since we have so much stuff in pipelines?” he said. “That is going to be an interesting conversation. The natural assumption is going to be (because of the gas tax increase), we will be sweeping in large amounts of work.

“At this point, I am not anticipating that.”

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