116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
More than 90,000 people drive every day on Interstate 380, a 73-mile ribbon of concrete connecting Eastern Iowa for over 40 years.
But as we hop on and off I-380 to get to work, school or the store, most of us don’t know about the backroom deal that helped secure the interstate’s passage through Cedar Rapids, the alternate routes it could have taken or about the two people who died in the push to open the highway.
Building I-380 from Coralville to Waterloo took 15 years and the acquisition — sometimes by eminent domain — of thousands of properties, including houses, businesses, churches, schools and farms.
LITTLE MEXICO: A Cedar Rapids neighborhood vanishes when I-380 moves in
“Public projects well planned serve a long-term purpose and they serve the city for decades and decades and decades,” said Tom Aller, who was executive assistant to the Cedar Rapids City Council from 1972 to 1988. But “you don’t put an interstate through a town and satisfy everybody,” said Aller, 72, who retired as president of Alliant Energy in 2014.
President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act on June 29, 1956, creating a 41,000-mile system of interstate highways intended to provide safe, speedy cross-county transportation, the History Channel reported. Interstate 80, which goes through Iowa on its route between San Francisco and New York City, was one of the original approved routes.
By the 1960s, city leaders in other parts of the country were itching for their own highways.
“There were a number of communities that wanted more mileage,” Aller said. “Cedar Rapids wanted it, Waterloo wanted it.”
Don Canney, who served as Cedar Rapids mayor from 1969 to 1992, was a civil engineer and former streets commissioner and knew what an interstate highway could do for his city, Aller said.
In the early 1960s, Canney went to Minneapolis to meet with Hubert Humphrey, who was a Minnesota senator before becoming vice president in 1965. They connected with other politicians from Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota and came up with a pitch for an interstate highway stretch from St. Louis, Mo., to St. Paul, Minn, passing through Cedar Rapids and Waterloo on the way.
“That’s where the idea of the Avenue of the Saints came from,” Aller said. “That’s how the mileage got added.”
Charting the course
Now the question was what route to take.
As far back as 1931, Cedar Rapids leaders were talking about a new north-south route through town. An early idea was widening Center Point Road, The Gazette’s then-City Hall reporter Dick Hogan wrote in 1981.
A 1950 major street plan called for routing traffic from Mount Vernon Road SE across a new connecting link with B Avenue NE and over a new railroad viaduct to Oakland Road NE, The Gazette reported. This route would have cost $1.25 million.
“Originally, there wasn’t supposed to be that S-shape,” Mike Deupree, another Gazette reporter who covered City Hall from 1973 to 1979, said about the S-curve that I-380 makes through downtown Cedar Rapids. “The logical thing would have been for it to go straight, but it would have gone through the southeast side, above 19th Street, where a lot of the rich people lived.”
That route lost favor.
“I don’t know how much of that was politics or that land acquisition would have been a lot higher,” Deupree said.
By 1961 there were five possible routes, ranging in cost from $3.4 to $4.3 million, with each route expanding and connecting existing roads and bridges rather than building a completely new highway.
The Iowa Highway Commission started studying interstate highway routes in 1962, the same year Gazette articles started talking about a “superhighway” connecting Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.
The city hired Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff (HNTB) to study the road alignment. A copy of HNTB ’s 1966 preliminary design report on the Cedar Valley Expressway, as the project was then called, is on file at the Iowa Department of Transportation’s District 6 office in Cedar Rapids.
“The need for this expressway is demonstrated by the maximum traffic assignment of 66,500 estimated as the daily average two-way volume near downtown Cedar Rapids in 1985,” the report states.
That design plan called for the present-day I-380 route, which Canney and other city leaders liked in general. But there were some sticking points.
“In the original plan there was not an exit at 42nd Street,” Aller said. “The town was livid.”
Canney, with the City Council’s support, told the Highway Commission the city needed an exit at 42nd Street NE or the city wouldn’t help with all the connecting roads, traffic lights and underground infrastructure needed for the interstate.
Eventually the commission relented, Aller said.
Canney also had the idea for the Five-in-One-Bridge, which used one set of piers over the Cedar River to include the dam, F Avenue NW, E Avenue NW and both directions of the interstate.
While crossing the river there made sense in some ways — it allowed interstate traffic to see the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids and avoided the railroad, Quaker Oats and a power plant — it also set up the S-curve, a common spot for crashes that is hard for police to patrol.
Replacing ‘deadly’ stretch
Construction on I-380 started in 1970 on the southern end, with the four-lane interstate replacing Highway 218, a two-lane stretch between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids that was so congested it often took more than an hour to drive.
“It used to be a terrible ordeal driving between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids,” Deupree said. “There was no place to pass and truck traffic.”
Aller agreed, calling that part of Highway 218 “the deadliest highway in the state of Iowa.”
As North Liberty, Swisher and Tiffin have continued to grow, traffic counts on the southern part of I-380 have made driving that four-lane stretch at certain times of day again feel a little dicey, said Cathy Cutler, transportation planner in the Iowa DOT’s District 6 office in Cedar Rapids.
“People are uncomfortable on 380 at four lanes,” she said. “That’s why we’re expanding to six lanes.”
The expansion from I-80 to Forevergreen Road in North Liberty is already underway as part of the new Interstate 80/I-380 interchange project. The Iowa DOT has approved another $40 million to widen I-380 through Swan Lake Road, north of the Penn Street exit, Cutler said.
“Then we actually will hop up and look at Wright Brothers intersection and then come back to the middle section,” Cutler said.
Hiawatha gets an exit
As workers in the early 1970s laid concrete for the southern part of I-380, the Highway Commission was routing sections farther north.
Original plans called for an elevated highway all the way through Hiawatha, but Hiawatha wasn’t having it. The city of 2,400 residents at the time complained the interstate would be noisy, stinky and would remove properties from the tax rolls, state records show. Hiawatha sued the state in 1974.
The state’s 1975 settlement with Hiawatha called for lowering I-380 to ground level and including an interchange at Boyson Road. Nearly 50 years later, Hiawatha is preparing for another I-380 interchange at Tower Terrace Road.
The Highway Commission considered seven routes between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, with alternate routes going through Independence, La Porte City, Palo, Vinton and Winthrop. For each route, the commission considered the impact on farming, number of stream crossings and whether there were churches or schools that would have to be removed.
In two public hearings, Iowans were split between the Palo and Independence routes.
But on Dec. 20, 1972, the commission chose the “Raymond Alternate” route — I-380’s current route — because it was the most direct path, making it the most “convenient and economic connection,” and because it required only one Cedar River crossing.
Push to open
By 1981, I-380 was almost done through downtown Cedar Rapids. The Five-in-One-Bridge was completed in 1979 and city leaders were eager to let motorists drive on this long-awaited interstate.
“All these different politicians promise things, it will be over by this date or that date,” said Duane “Sandy” Sands, a transportation inspector from 1971 to 2010. “It was such a rush to open it up.”
Officials persuaded the Highway Commission — now called the Iowa DOT — to open some lanes while work continued on others, Sands said. On Dec. 4, 1981, two workers retrieved barricades from Seventh Ave NE and placed them on the back of a flatbed trailer towed by a dump truck.
“As the northbound truck and trailer crossed the I-380 bridge south of H Avenue NE, a gust of wind lifted one of the barricades, knocking the two men off the trailer,” The Gazette reported. “One of the men was dragged.”
Dale Scott, 24, of Marion, and Keith Bennett, 20, of Lisbon, died from their injuries in the fall.
“They said ‘Oh, you guys were being unsafe,’” Sands said. ”It wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t promised to be open by that date.“
Lee Benfield, Iowa DOT District 6 transportation planner from 1978 to 2006, remembers the workers’ deaths. “Anytime you’re building a road project like that, you get to a point where people say, ‘It’s done, why can’t we drive on it yet?”
I-380 was completed in 1985, 15 years after it started. People involved in the project still think it serves Eastern Iowa well, including during the historic 2008 flood that caused the Cedar River to spread over 10 square miles of the city.
“Do you remember the only road that was open?” Aller asked. “That tells you a lot.”
Cutler, who has planned a lot of road projects in 32 years with the Iowa DOT, said she’s grateful I-380 planners had the foresight to buy enough land for six lanes and access control so people can’t build up close to the road.
Driving on I-380 through downtown, you see some of the city’s landmark buildings, including the Veteran’s Memorial Building with its gold-plated “eternal flame,” 21-story Alliant Tower, the federal courthouse and the CRST Center, with a section that cantilevers over the river.
“I do think it’s the right place for this interstate to be,” Cutler said.
Many people helped The Gazette find documents and photos, make connections between sources and identify people and buildings. They are Cathy Cutler, Iowa Department of Transportation District 6 transportation planner; Diane Langton, freelance historian and Gazette Time Machine writer; Karen Downs, Cedar Rapids property disposition coordinator; Chris Bys, deputy Linn County recorder; Alison Gowans, writer for the Cedar Rapids Public Library; Mark Stoffer-Hunter, Cedar Rapids-area historian; and Tara Templeman, curator and collection manager at the Cedar Rapids History Center. Thanks also to Rodriguez family historians Margaret Meier, Anthony Vasquez and Jim Vasquez.
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