Highway Helper launch delayed until Thanksgiving

Building the specialized trucks cited as the reason

Traffic travels along Interstate 380 just north of Swisher during the evening rush hour on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
Traffic travels along Interstate 380 just north of Swisher during the evening rush hour on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Highway Helper program still is coming to serve the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area on Interstates 80 and 380 and Highways 30 and 218, but the launch date has been delayed.

Getting the specialized, souped-up vehicles, equipped with utility boxes, digital message boards, push bumpers and tools, is taking longer than expected, said Scott Marler, Iowa DOT director of traffic operations.

“The manufacturing of the truck boxes was delayed due to not all of the parts being available,” Marler said. “That changed our timeline.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation signed a contract in January with Prairie Land Towing of Wisconsin to run an expanded version of Highway Helper, a free roadside-assistance program.

The three-year contract initially valued at $14 million, and later scaled-down to $9.16 million, called for the service to begin by April 1. This summer, the agency told reporter the target launch was updated to no later than Labor Day.

The Iowa DOT is now targeting the Thanksgiving time frame to begin Highway Helper in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City and Council Bluffs metro areas. It already began in Des Moines on Aug. 28.

News of the multimillion-dollar contract rattled some lawmakers, who probed members of the Iowa Transportation Commission about the expense in light of a controversial 10 cent per gallon gas tax hike adopted to address dilapidated roads and bridges.

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Commissioners questioned why they didn’t know about the expense, but the Iowa DOT general counsel advised them it fell outside their authority.

The Iowa DOT had been running Highway Helper in the Des Moines area since 1995 as an in-house service staffed with employees and state vehicles. The popularity and safety benefits spurred statewide expansion talk — but through a vendor so staff could handle other responsibilities such as maintenance, road work and plowing.

“Each minute an incident continues studies show the potential for secondary crashes grows 2.8 percent per minute,” Marler said. “After 30 to 40 minutes of a car sitting on the road, there’s a high probability of a secondary crash.”

The initial contract required five vehicles and one back up vehicle each in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids-Iowa City, and two vehicles and one back up in Council Bluffs.

By February, the Iowa DOT notified Prairie Land the need to change terms due to a reduction in funding allocations to the traffic operations office. An amendment was signed in June to reduce the scope to two vehicles, with one back up in each of the metros, reducing the contract value to $9.16 million.

The original and updated contracts include two one-year optional extensions after 2018, and Marler said they will be monitoring the service closely.

In late August, the two sides signed a second amendment related to the start dates.

The amendment called for deployment in Council Bluffs and Cedar Rapids-Iowa City on Nov. 12. Deployment in Des Moines would begin on Aug. 28 with a temporary vehicle arrangement of two 2015 GMC 2-wheel drive double cab trucks worth about $35,000, with the trucks eventually sold back to Prairie Land.

The payment amounts were modified from $739,163 over a three-month period for Des Moines service to $491,254.

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Marler said both sides were aware the start date needed to be flexible given the uncertainty of building the specialized vehicles.

“There were no firm dates on that because we recognized this type of equipment is a little more specialized,” he said.

Marler said through the first six weeks of service in Des Moines, motorists have had positive feedback.

Highway Helper assists with changing flats, jump-starts, a little fuel for an out-of-gas vehicle, pushing a car off the road and moving stranded motorists to a safe location, particularly in winter. The service will not provide towing.

“This is a safety patrol with the keyword being ‘safety,’” Marler said. “The main focus is to keep people moving because when traffic backs up, it creates dangerous conditions.”

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