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Too many roads, not enough money?

Addressing Iowa's infrastructure troubles

Mar 5, 2017 at 12:00 pm
    Photo illustration for Iowa Ideas magazine cover story on roads for March 05, 2017 edition. Photo for use on inside pages. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

    Ask any two Iowans for the worst road in the state, and they’ll likely give two different answers.

    For former state Rep. Josh Byrnes of Osage, Highway 218 north of St. Ansgar gets his vote.

    “I mean, literally, it would knock your kidney stones loose as you drove down that road,” Byrnes said

    Recent additions to the state’s coffers — including a two-year-old gas tax increase — have helped move the Highway 218 project forward and ease Byrnes’ pain. But Iowa still has a long road ahead to get its infrastructure up to date.

    Steve Gannon, Linn County engineer, said all Iowans can think of a road or bridge in their neighborhood they wished was in better shape.

    “Each of us has that in us, to want something better,” Gannon said. “The one service all residents can see and understand — and it’s direct and observable — is the road out in front of their house.”

    County engineers such as Gannon, state lawmakers like Byrnes, hundreds of city planners and a staff at the Iowa Department of Transportation more than 2,700 strong, are facing the same challenge — using limited funds to maintain Iowa’s massive network of aging roads and bridges.

    Several factors play into the current state of Iowa’s infrastructure, including the sheer number of bridges and miles of roadway in the state — which require a hefty maintenance investment.

    “I think that probably is an inevitable result of just having this much infrastructure. We kind of were going to end up this way, one way or another,” said Stuart Anderson, director of planning, programming and modal division with the Iowa Department of Transportation.

    From local officials to state lawmakers and advocates, Iowans have been taking a hard look at the state’s infrastructure to not only secure more funds to begin the much-needed rebuilding process, but also ensure that every dollar is carefully invested.



    As Iowa formed as a state, an ample supply of black dirt quickly established agriculture as the state’s chief industry.

    So much so that Iowa now sits as the country’s biggest producer of corn, soybeans, eggs and pork, according to the Iowa Area Development Group. In addition to agriculture products, the industry includes production centers, equipment manufacturers and other ag-related businesses.

    “The economic impact of ag is someplace between $70 (billion) and $100 billion,” said Dave Miller, Iowa Farm Bureau’s director of research and commodity services. “Ag is big.”

    To supplement agriculture, most of the state’s road systems, which date back to horse and buggy days, were laid out in a one-mile grid to accommodate the typical farm of the era — about 160 acres. Each square mile of road encompassed four farms.

    Those farm-to-market roads were critical in transporting crops and livestock to processing centers, storage facilities and transportation hubs.

    “Those are extremely important to moving this 30-some billion dollars a year in ag product into the processing centers. Much of that processing is located on the state and federal highway system. It’s in Cedar Rapids, it’s in Des Moines,” Miller said.

    Iowa's roads -- percent of vehicle miles traveled

    Data provided by Iowa DOT

    There were 114,877 miles of roadway in Iowa in 2016, according the Iowa DOT. The state maintains about 9,400 miles, which includes 534 miles of ramps. Counties manage 89,700 miles of road, and municipalities own another some 15,000 miles. Parks and institutions cover 626 miles and federal agencies maintain another 138 miles.

    Iowa’s grid pattern, coupled with the state’s many rivers and streams, led to major bridge construction — to the tune of more than 24,000 bridges in the state.

    But Iowa’s massive infrastructure has created a double-edged sword.

    “The real benefit is we have great accessibility to land in Iowa, and obviously that was very important and continues to be very important to get agricultural products to the elevator, to the ethanol plant or the feed lot or the barge facility for export across the world. But then that means we have a lot of roads and bridges that need to be maintained,” said Anderson, who has been with the DOT for 25 years.

    Iowa, as with most Midwest states, also has to deal with the wear and tear that comes with four seasons.

    Freezing and thawing temperatures, plow blades and de-icer all take their toll on Iowa’s roads and bridges, said Byrnes, who had been chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

    “There’s just a lot of things that our infrastructure takes more abuse on,” he said.



    All those roads and bridges place Iowa 12th in the nation in total roadway miles and fifth in number of bridges, according to a 2016 DOT report.

    Iowa’s main funding source for infrastructure maintenance and management is the state’s Road Use Tax Fund, which is supplemented primarily through vehicle registration fees, taxes on vehicle sales and the state fuel tax.

    County and city governments also make use of local taxes and bonds to finance road and bridge efforts. Federal dollars are another source.

    In fiscal year 2014, the state operated on a roughly $1.36 billion Road Use Tax Fund, with about $435 million of that coming from the state gas tax for all public roads in Iowa.

    However, state road-use dollars have not kept up with the demand brought on by Iowa’s aging infrastructure.

    A 2006 report by the Iowa DOT, which assessed the state’s unmet Road Use Tax Fund needs for a 20-year-window, found an estimated $28 billion in unmet needs over the next two decades, with about $4 billion of those deemed critical.

    “A ‘critical’ need is if you don’t build that, you’re going to have a serious safety problem, or if you don’t build that, you are going to miss an economic development opportunity,” said Scott Newhard, vice president of public affairs with Associated General Contractors of Iowa, an organization made up of more than 300 contractor and supplier businesses focused on construction of heavy highway and water and sewer infrastructure.

    An updated 2011 road-use tax fund study — the DOT develops the report every five years — found a statewide funding shortfall of about $1.6 billion a year to meet every need that exists or could exist in the next 20 years. Critical needs, a subset of that total, amounted to about $215 million a year.

    For 2017, Anderson said he doesn’t anticipate the critical needs to change much from the 2011 report.

    But just how bad are Iowa’s roads and bridges?

    Iowa ranks as one of the 10 worst states regarding the condition of its urban interstates and rural arterial roads. The state’s rural interstates rank in the bottom 20, according to a 2015 Iowa report by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

    Iowa's 25 most traveled structurally deficient bridges

    Source: Federal Highway Administration, 2015 inventory. Map by John McGlothlen / The Gazette

    Another document, the 22nd Annual Highway Report, released September 2016 by the nonpartisan public policy research group Reason Foundation, rates all 50 states based on the performance of their state-owned highway systems, but also the resources available for highway projects.

    From 2012 to 2013, Iowa dropped from 18 to 40 on the list, the biggest decline for any state that year, according to the report.

    Iowa’s bridges have fared even worse, with the state ranking first in the nation in terms of the total number of deficient bridges and third for the percentage of deficient bridges in a state’s overall inventory, according to a 2015 National Bridge Inventory report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which uses Federal Highway Administration data.

    Aging roads and bridges can have deterioration, cracks and other flaws that, when left unattended, can lead to future maintenance expenses or safety issues. Deficient bridges are put under weight restrictions, which means some are no longer able to carry the weight of modern farming equipment.

    More than 2,600 of Iowa’s bridges have posted weight limits.

    For farmers such as the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Miller, deficient bridges aren’t much more than headaches at this point, but they do force farmers to reroute.

    “It does become problematic from what might have been a three-mile direct route from the field to the grain bin now becomes an eight- or 10-mile trip, so in some cases it doubles or triples the road time,” Miller said. “Is it huge? No. Does it drastically change the cost structure of what I’m doing? No. It’s more in the realm of a minor nuisance, but it probably raises the cost by a couple cents a bushel.

    “No bridge gets better with age,” he said. “This full road system, this infrastructure, is so important. We need this.”



    Iowa’s infrastructure woes didn’t happen overnight and addressing billions in statewide need also will take time.

    Associated General Contractors’ Newhard, who served on the Iowa House from 1973 to 1978, was one of many state officials and advocates who began a multipronged effort in 1995 to get more dollars into the state road fund.

    Newhard said an early step included identifying state expenses that originally had been covered by the general fund, but over time found themselves being covered by the road use fund. For example, the highway patrol at one point was being paid for out of the road fund, which is specifically dedicated to road and bridge projects, Newhard said.

    The state Legislature in 1995 began the five-year process of getting more than $100 million back to roads and bridges. Expenses once covered by diverted dollars were budgeted into the state’s general fund.

    “There was at one time $118 million worth of things going out the back door and that practice stopped. That alone was equivalent back then to a 5-cent gas tax increase, by getting money to the road fund, without actually having to raise the gas tax,” Newhard said.

    While protections also were put in place to prevent future diversions, the reduced spending over time on Iowa roads and bridges had taken its toll.

    “In effect, $118 million going out the back door for many, many years, up until it was fixed, that clearly had an impact on not being able to take care of deteriorating bridges nor taking care of the maintenance on many of those roadways,” Newhard said. “The lack of availability of funds that should have gone to the road fund did have an impact on the conditions of the roads.”

    By the early 2000s, a growing number of state officials, including Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, and member of the Transportation Committee, concluded that an increase to the state gas tax — which was last raised in 1989 — was the answer.

    “Each year not doing something to increase revenue was making that gap grow larger and larger, so you heard the expression kicking the can down the road a lot by some legislators,” Bowman said. “But trying to get a fuel tax increase was incredibly difficult.”

    To make the case for a tax increase, the DOT first had to ensure that all other efforts had been made.

    In the mid-2000s, the DOT embarked on a departmentwide self-examination, which included the elimination of some positions through attrition and realignment of some departments — an effort that put millions of dollars into the road fund.

    Soon after, the 2006 report, which identified an estimated $28 billion in unmet needs over the next 20 years, reaffirmed to lawmakers what many already knew — Iowa’s infrastructure was in dire need of funds.

    Iowa road funding

    Source: Fiscal Year 2017 estimates

    “Whether they were willing to impose an increase on the public to pay for it remained to be seen, but most all of them conceded that more needed to be done,” Newhard said.

    With the DOT’s restructuring underway and state needs identified, Newhard suggested the creation of a bipartisan committee that studied and ultimately recommended a gas tax increase and some other changes, including adjustments to fees that would increase revenue to the state road fund.

    However, then-Gov. Chet Culver was not interested in such a tax and eventually recommendations — which included some fee adjustments — were adopted in 2008 without the tax.

    But over time ongoing education and transitions in the Statehouse began to create what Newhard called the “right chemical balance” of bipartisan support of a fuel tax increase.

    “Everything was building to a crescendo,” Newhard said.

    The tipping point took place in February 2015, as the proposed gas tax sat stalled in the House Ways and Means Committee, unable to get enough votes to progress. Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, shuffled the committee, replacing one member and naming himself to the committee to provide a majority vote in favor of the bill.

    The proposed 10-cent fuel tax increase moved to the floor in both chambers.

    “That sent the signal to everyone, whether you were for or against the gas tax, we are now going to debate this and we are going to pass this. Even the opponents knew that it was now a foregone conclusion, that this would pass,” Newhard said.

    The bill passed both chambers within a matter of hours and Gov. Terry Branstad signed it into law the next day. The 10-cent gas tax increase went into effect the following Sunday, March 1, 2015.



    Iowa’s new tax is estimated to add about $213 million annually to the state road fund, which means an additional $101 million to state projects, $70 million to county projects and $42 million to city projects.

    The Road Use Tax Fund and other revenues reached about $1.63 billion in fiscal 2016, which marked an 11.3 percent increase from the year before and the fund’s largest annual percentage increase in more than 20 years, according to DOT data.

    From fiscal years 2010 to 2016, the total value of project lettings by the Iowa DOT for state-owned roads and bridges increased from about $482 million to more than $830 million, according to the DOT.

    Since 2011, the state has reduced its stock of deficient bridges by more than 400 statewide. The number of deficient state-maintained bridges dropped from 187 in 2010 to 77 last year.

    “Clearly, those increased fees and the gas tax have increased the programming, and I think it’s pretty evident if you drive around the state there’s a lot of construction going on,” Newhard said. “That, in my view, is the clear cut end result of, is that money going into projects? Well, clearly it is.”

    The tax’s estimated $213 million in added annual revenue meets the critical shortfalls laid out in DOT reports, but it pales in comparison to the state’s $1.6 billion in yearly need.

    Years of neglect to Iowa’s roads and bridges has put the state in a hole.

    “Think of your house. If you put off reshingling it for a year to two, it might create more structural damages or problems that are more costly than if you had maintained it,” state Sen. Bowman said.

    In addition, gas taxes tend to flatten out over time as vehicles become more fuel efficient and construction costs continue to rise, so the recent gas tax increase is hardly a fix-all to Iowa’s infrastructure needs.

    The DOT Transportation Commission and local elected governments — which prioritize their respective road and bridge projects — need to make sure every dollar is well spent.

    “It wasn’t expected that this fuel tax increase would change that — prioritization is still going to have to happen at all levels — but at least with this funding increase, those most critical needs are able to be met.” the DOT’s Anderson said. “The bridge on the county farm-to-market road can be programmed and improved. The project on U.S. (Highway) 20 in western Iowa, the (DOT) commission now has funding to complete that corridor.”



    The recently appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, said the state must remain steadfast in finding alternative ways to address the state’s infrastructure shortfalls and make sure Iowa’s roads and bridges are never again neglected.

    One option, which he said could show up as a bill in this year’s Legislature, would provide more local control — and a resulting cost savings — on federally funded projects.

    All options will be on the table in the years to come, Kapucian said.

    “We didn’t get here overnight, and it’s not going to go away overnight,” he said. “It’s long-term, and it’s going to be a continuous project.”

    To ensure state road dollars are used efficiently, the DOT, led by former Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino III, a few years ago began taking a somewhat new approach to prioritizing the abundance of road projects.

    Debi Durham, director of Iowa’s Economic Development Authority, said her office has been involved in some of those conversations.

    For years, road projects were prioritized largely by safety and need, and while those remain key factors in maintenance and upgrade decisions, the state also has begun factoring in the economic value of Iowa’s infrastructure.

    “There was never a philosophy that you needed to take a step back and say, where is trade originating and where is it going to market worldwide and if you had to build a system from scratch, what would that system look like? What’s the most efficient way to move that product?” Durham said. “Our collaboration with the DOT has really been, I think, a hallmark to our economic development strategy and something that sets us apart truly from other states.”

    Prioritization can require focusing more efforts on the state’s most-traveled roads.

    While Iowa’s interstates and U.S. and state highways make up only about 8 percent of the roads in Iowa, they carry more than 60 percent of the vehicle miles traveled in the state. They also carry 92 percent of the large truck vehicle miles, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2015 Iowa infrastructure report.

    The shift in perspective on Iowa’s infrastructure can be a bit controversial, as it sometimes leads to the question: Are some of Iowa’s aging roads and bridges worth the cost of upkeep or replacement?

    “A farm-to-market road in 2016 is drastically different than a farm-to-market road that was built at the turn of the century,” Durham said. “Does it make sense, just as a radical idea, to close some of these roads so that we can build heavier roads for farmers to move heavier equipment on because they were not designed to do that?”

    Durham admitted it’s not always the most popular idea among residents.

    Iowans are passionate about their roads.

    “That is radical, different thinking, but the data begins to now paint the picture of why this is important,” Durham said. “Nothing is easy. There’s no doubt about it, but I have to tell you people are intrigued and it’s very exciting to be a part of it.”

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