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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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Put more cars and trucks onto a stretch of highway, and each vehicle has less space. Bob Gates sees what happens next.
"There's a lot more tailgating going on," said Gates of Cedar Rapids.
He makes upward of a dozen trips a day between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City at the wheel of an Airport Shuttle Service minivan.
"Morning, noon and night, seven days a week, there's a lot more truck traffic," said Gates, who's altered his routine to cope with traffic growth.
"If I've got time, I'll take an extra 15 to 20 minutes. One thing I don't want to do is have a passenger late for a flight and miss it."
And with the Corridor's rush hours closely matching airline schedules, not all Gates's trips are on I-380.
"If you've got to pick someone up in North Liberty at the rush hour, I avoid the Interstate," Gates said.
"I'll take the old highway (965). For someone from the east side of Iowa City, I'll go down through Solon."
The 2008 completion of the Avenue of the Saints, the four-lane highway between St. Paul and St. Louis that includes I-380's entire length, brought more heavy truck traffic, said Cathy Cutler, planner for the Iowa Department of Transportation's Cedar Rapids-based District 6.
But growth in the number of private vehicles has outpaced that of trucks.
Trucks' share of traffic on the busiest section of I-380, between North Liberty and Cedar Rapids, actually declined over the past 20 years. Trucks accounted for 6,500 of the 48,700 vehicles a day - 13.3 percent - by IDOT's 2010 count, the most recent available.
In 1990, 3,930 trucks used the same section each day, or 16.7 percent of 23,400 total vehicles.
Much of that traffic is headed to and from the Corridor's anchor cities. In 2010 IDOT counted just 24,600 vehicles on 380 north of Hiawatha and 18,900 on Highway 218 south of the I-80 interchange.
Interstate 80 east of the 380 junction carries the corridor's heaviest traffic - 49,100 vehicles daily in 2010 - and I-80 through Iowa City is part of the Corridor, says John Yapp, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) of Johnson County.
"The Dubuque Street interchange is a gateway," said Yapp, who considers Iowa 965 south of North Liberty part of the Corridor, too.
"That carries a lot of what I'd call regional traffic," he said.
Separate studies now under way will help determine what future improvements I-380 may see in Cedar Rapids and at its south end near Iowa City.
“It's primarily intended to be a high-level look at the corridor," said Cutler. "Nothing's imminent, nothing's selected, let alone funded.”
The feasibility study covering Highway 30 to County Home Road will help IDOT plan future improvements. The study includes designs for interchange alterations at Wright Brothers Boulevard, Highway 30, 42nd Street NE, Highway 100, Blairs Ferry Road NE, County Home Road and Boyson Road as well as the elevated s-curve through downtown Cedar Rapids.
The study, which also includes designs for an interchange at Tower Terrace Road, is the first detailed look since I-380 was opened through the city in stages, from south to north, in 1976 to 1983. The study also covers Highway 30 between Kirkwood Boulevard and Sixth Street SW.
"It's at that age when we just need to look at it and see what we can do," IDOT's Cutler said. "We haven't looked at capacity here. We were more looking at what the interchanges can do" to improve safety and efficiency.
The alternatives range from minor adjustments to current layouts to dramatic changes. Among the options for the downtown segment is a bypass north of the present curve on the Cedar River's west bank that sweeps northeast across the river and nearby Cedar Lake to connect with the current route, which would remain open, near H Avenue NE.
"They were a little out of the box, at our direction," Cutler said of the designs.
Cutler said the Cedar Rapids study should be finished late this year. A key component of the south-end study, which should be done in early 2013, is reworking the I-380/80 junction.
Cutler said the study will consider a layout for the busy interchange with flyover bridges so traffic won't have to cross lanes to change direction. The project will require careful budgeting: Cutler estimated it would cost $300 million, while IDOT budgets $400 million a year for road improvements statewide.
Traffic at the interchange, now detoured to allow re-decking of its bridges, should return to normal in August, Cutler said.
Crews work will work nights beginning later this summer to resurface the Interstate through Cedar Rapids. Cutler said the southbound lanes will be repaved this year, the northbound lanes in 2013.
The $27 million project also includes new railings for bridges and barriers.
Updating I-80's Dubuque Street interchange is scheduled for next year. Yapp said the work will be staged to keep the interchange open and will be coordinated with Iowa City's project to raise Dubuque Street above the level of June 2008's flood waters.
The expansion of I-80 to six lanes through Iowa City ends this year after five years of work. Will 380 see similar work soon?
"It's very much a commuter corridor, so it has much greater volumes before work and right after work," Yapp said. "During the rest of the day and overnight it's really not that busy, comparably.
"The policy decision is, do you build it to accommodate that traffic, or do you build it to accommodate the rest of the day? You don't want to invest funds in capacity that is unused most of the time."
Adam Lindenlaub, administrator of Cedar Rapids-based Corridor MPO, said technology may help 380 handle more traffic without additional lanes. A system that monitors vehicle counts could warn motorists via smartphone or receivers installed in their cars of detours and congestion and offers alternate routes around it.
"For people who have alternate ways to the Interstate, that helps them get around it," he said.
An app could link drivers to an intelligent transportation system that may incorporate speed-monitoring cameras and message boards warning of localized trouble, Lindenlaub said.
Gates said traffic on I-380's downtown s-curve has improved since the city installed speed-monitoring cameras there.
"I know there's a controversy with these cameras, but from my 0bservation and my standpoint, if they do decide to ban these cameras they should stay on the (5-in-1) bridge," he said. "It is a lot safer up there than it used to be."
Despite all those commuters, the Corridor hosts no public transit outside van pools operated by large employers such as the University of Iowa.
Yapp said the Johnson County MPO has applied for grants to fund followup design work to a 2006 study into reviving passenger rail service on the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway (CRANDIC) between its namesake cities. The CRANDIC provided electric interurban service on the line until May 1953, when the loss of passengers to private auto - even decades before I-380 - forced its end.
The study estimated it would cost just over $40 million in 2012 dollars to restore service between the Eastern Iowa Airport and Iowa City. Annual operating costs would run about $4.5 million (also corrected for inflation from the initial estimate).
Establishing downtown-to-downtown service, a key to building ridership, would require another $39.8 million for new track to bypass CRANDIC's busy freight yards to reach central Cedar Rapids.
“The issue remains, it doesn't relieve much traffic," said Cutler. "We just don't see a lot of people asking about it."
A Corridor bus service, meanwhile, remains in the preliminary discussion stage.
"That's just been an idea that's been bandied about, but it really needs to be looked at at a regional planning level," said Brad DeBrower, Cedar Rapids's transit manager.
The success of a new transit service - rail or bus - would rest on timely runs downtown-to-downtown. But would-be passengers aren't likely to drive downtown to catch a bus, and intermediate stops add travel time, making a service less likely to lure drivers from their cars.
"You cannot have it circulate through the entire community because the time it takes to do that," said Yapp.
"If (adding stops) more than doubles your commute time, you just have to decide what that's worth to you," Cutler said. "For most people, their time is worth more than that."
Lindenlaub said a corridor bus becomes more likely if proposed Iowa City-Chicago passenger rail service ever happens. Corridor MPO supports the envisioned rail service if the plan includes a Cedar Rapids bus link.
"It's one ticket, but that ticket gets you on the bus and also on the rail," he said.
A spike in gas prices could change the transit calculation, but the recent trend is in the opposite direction.
“I don't know what the breaking point is for gasoline (price)," Cutler said. "It doesn't seem to be $3.50."