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State accelerates Wright Brothers Boulevard interchange reconfiguration project in Cedar Rapids
Project added to Iowa DOT’s five-year plan
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Iowa Department of Transportation this week accelerated plans to reconfigure an interchange at Interstate 380 and Wright Brothers Boulevard SW, giving a major boost to a fast-growing part of town that has become host to massive industrial developments.
As a federal cash influx has added support for infrastructure projects nationwide, the interchange reconfiguration was added to the Iowa DOT’s five-year plan, spanning the 2023-27 budget years — a first step to securing all the funding.
“We are extremely pleased that this particular interchange really is going to be built in record time,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said. “It’s an incredible combination of housing as well as businesses and our airport, and this is a very important strategic area as far as job creation in Cedar Rapids. We look forward to seeing this project begin.”
Cathy Cutler, a transportation planner with the Iowa DOT, said the interchange will essentially stretch from Sixth Street to Earhart Lane SW, and from just shy of the Highway 30 interchange to the Swisher/Shueyville interchange at 120th Street in Johnson County.
Cedar Rapids wants to rebuild a portion of Wright Brothers Boulevard SW farther east, and will develop and design that, Cutler said. The projects connect so one contractor can simultaneously build and coordinate them.
Pomeranz said the two-lane bridge at Wright Brothers Boulevard SW is “nowhere near the capacity needed to serve businesses and residents,” so the state support is key to meeting that demand.
City Engineer Brenna Fall told The Gazette the city’s project will focus on safety and capacity improvements along the Wright Brothers Boulevard SW corridor, between Sixth Street SW and Earhart Lane. The city will engage a consultant for design of the city’s project while both the Iowa DOT's project is in the works. There is no cost estimate and design yet.
Overall, the Iowa DOT’s entire I-380 widening project, including the Wright Brothers Boulevard SW interchange, totals $99.5 million. The lion’s share of that — $86.5 million — is grading and paving.
Currently, the I-380/Wright Brothers Boulevard SW interchange is a diamond interchange where a highway crosses a minor road. The reconfiguration would create a “diverging diamond” interchange, where Cutler said the traffic crosses like an ‘X’ in the middle of bridges. This eliminates the need for left-turning vehicles to cross the paths of approaching vehicles, which Cutler said more quickly moves a higher volume of traffic that wants to go left.
Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell told the Iowa Transportation Commission the interchange is a vital part of the freight and transportation system, located at the center of an industry hub.
“This interchange provides access to a rapidly growing area that includes our airport — The Eastern Iowa Airport — and associated freight, shipping, warehousing, logistics, ethanol, industrial development and existing and future housing developments,” O’Donnell said.
Over the last decade and especially the last six years, O’Donnell said, new development in Cedar Rapids has accelerated as interstate commerce businesses have invested more than $1 billion south of Highway 30.
These developments have created more than 1,000 new jobs and retained at least 2,200 existing jobs, O’Donnell said. Additional housing developments will continue to add traffic in the area.
Cedar Rapids is seeing an uptick in larger warehouse and distribution facilities looking to leverage the proximity to the airport, interstate and rail network, O’Donnell said, and existing large industrial companies are expanding.
Slated to open this year are a $108.6 million FedEx Ground distribution center on Commerce Park Drive SW and a classified defense aerospace facility worth more than $170 million from multinational aerospace company BAE Systems.
Over the next one to three years, the city is planning for $23 million in new construction in this growth area. Planned infrastructure projects here total more than $28 million.
For all the activity in the area, there is an antiquated egress at the interchange and “a tremendous bottleneck there,” O’Donnell said.
According to Iowa DOT data last updated in 2019, the traffic count at the interchange to the west is about 14,000, though most cars peel off at Sixth Street SW. The count east of the interchange is about 7,000.
Given the sheer volume of projects in the works, city Economic Development Manager Caleb Mason said a comprehensive traffic study of the area south of Highway 30 was the impetus for the city seeking state assistance. There will be hundreds of new employees between the new developments, Mason said, plus the movement of freight in and out of the FedEx facility will total between 3,000 and 4,000 trips a day.
Chris DeWolf, the Lil’ Drug Store Products president and chief executive officer, said the interchange reconfiguration is critical right now — both for economic development and for safety.
He said he sees employees leave every day at a standstill amid the traffic at the interchange as well as people charging across the interchange on foot, dodging trucks and other vehicles.
“There is so much going on out here,” DeWolf said of the southwest quadrant, “whether it's the several 100,000 square-feet of industrial expansion that has occurred, whether it is the continued development of the school systems out there — both Kirkwood as well as College Community, as well as the additional housing that's occurring.”
The Iowa DOT will hold a public information meeting from 5 to 6 p.m. June 21 at the its District 6 Office, Conference Rooms A & B, 5455 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, in Cedar Rapids, to discuss the proposed widening of I-380 and rebuilding the Wright Brothers interchange.
The Iowa DOT recently completed the first of three phases of work to reconstruct a segment of the high-volume Collins Road corridor, improving traffic flow and stormwater management and adding pedestrian facilities around Lindale Mall and First Avenue E.
The next segment is around the Collins Aerospace campus on C Avenue NE to the Lindale Mall commercial area, estimated at $40 million. O’Donnell said Cedar Rapids is ready to begin the preliminary engineering and design phase, and state assistance would support right of way acquisition and construction.
The third and final phase is estimated to cost $25 million.
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