116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
LISBON — Main Street is quiet here, but inside Gwen's Restaurant on a Friday in late March, the lunchtime rush just raided a buffet of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, salad and gravy.
Customers from Lisbon and neighboring Mount Vernon have supported this homestyle eatery for 34 years, as have a steady stream of pass-through traffic from the Lincoln Highway, or Highway 30, south of the downtown area. The speed limit slows to 35 mph, and motorists are met with gas stations, fast-food and places nearby to stay for the night.
'We get a lot of business from the gas station and motels,' restaurant owner Gwen Drahos said. 'It is pretty important for us.'
Mount Vernon — with 4,583 people and Lisbon with 2,166 — have thwarted the grip of declining small town Iowa and built a tourism niche. An ensemble of locally owned business, the energy and stability of Cornell College, historic downtowns and the crossroads of Highway 1 and Highway 30 have poured a healthy flow of visitors — and their money — into the area.
But Drahos sees an uncertain future, thanks to plans for a high-speed, four-lane, six-mile Highway 30 bypass that will sweep 7,200 vehicles a day farther away from the two towns.
She wonders if people will still stop if they aren't first forced to slow down, or if they will zip through to spend money in bigger cities such as Cedar Rapids or Clinton. No one knows yet, but many people are bracing for changes.
"I think it will affect everyone a little bit," Drahos said.
Helping or a 'nightmare'?
Bypasses have been a planning tool for decades to improve traffic flow and safety. But some question whether they speed up the decline of rural communities by discouraging visitors and money.
The Highway 30 bypass has been in discussion for decades, leaving some to question if it truly is imminent. The Iowa Department of Transportation says it is, and it has begun acquiring nearly 400 acres of farm land, with plans for construction of the $94 million bypass in 2017-20.
The bypass is supposed to reduce crashes, and it fits into the DOT's plan of modernizing key corridors with faster, more efficient roads to move freight and support economic development. Strong transportation networks are the backbone of attracting new businesses and vitality, said David Rose, chairman of the Iowa Transportation Commission, which approved the project.
"I think the rewards coming from Cedar Rapids out to them will be very significant," Rose said. "It's a tremendous move to them, and the next move is to get Clinton to Dewitt, and then you have a straight shot into the center of Chicago ...
I think it's a real positive for the community. You have to be receptive to going forward."
Locals such as Drahos remain leery, however, and others are more overt in their discontent.
"It's terrible business," said Moe Richardson, a local real estate agent. "If the general public is not stopping to your shop because they are going 70 mph, it's going to take a lot of money out of this community."
Mount Vernon Mayor James Moore called the design a "nightmare," and said local opinions were overlooked.
"They include us in the discussion, but it doesn't make no difference what we say," Moore said. "They are going to do what they want anyway."
The DOT said it worked to select locations for two interchanges — one each for Mount Vernon and Lisbon — offering the best visibility and access for cities. The idea of widening the existing road was dismissed early on because it would cause drastic effects on adjacent businesses and run into a cemetery and public golf course, said Catherine Cutler, a transportation planner with the DOT district 6 office in Cedar Rapids.
"Iowa DOT recognizes there are impacts to the towns that are bypassed but feel we work well with the locals up front to make the bypass a good solution for all," Cutler said.
Some are trying to think positive.
"We work very hard to create Mount Vernon and Lisbon as a destination," said Joe Jennison, of the Mount Vernon Lisbon Community Development Group. "We are unique communities with very active uptowns, with the college and historic districts. I can't image a bypass making all that momentum stop."
In the meantime, people are looking for clues in other communities with bypasses, such as Monticello about 30 miles north. Or Tama, which had a bypass installed five years ago and beef packing plant open last fall.
"We are unique communities with very active uptowns, with the college and historic districts. I can't image a bypass making all that momentum stop."
- Joe Jennison
Mount Vernon Lisbon Community Development Group
Monticello — with has about 3,800 people and located between Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Dubuque — was a common midway stop for Iowa Hawkeye fans from northeast Iowa or Wisconsin on their way to or from Kinnick Stadium on home football weekends.
A four-lane bypass opened in 2004, pulling Highway 151 out of the main business district and shaved time and delays off the drive.
The gameday traffic screeched to a halt and so did everyday traffic, Bob Tuetken recalled.
Tuetken said his business, the Blue Inn, which included rooms and a restaurant, was one of the casualties. Restaurant business dropped 70 percent, and the hotel suffered a 50 to 60 percent decline after the bypass, he said.
He tried altering the business model a few times, including converting the hotel to apartments, opening an adjacent campground and starting a fitness center. But the failure of the Lake Delhi Dam in 2010 coupled with lost traffic proved too much to overcome, he said.
Tuetken lost the business and moved to Omaha for a new start.
'People aren't coming off the beaten path,' he said from Omaha during a telephone conversation.
The loss in traffic stung, but Monticello as a whole is adapting and surviving, said Wayne Manternach, chairman of the Jones County Board of Supervisors.
Attendance and revenue at the Jones County Fair last year were the best ever, he said. And development is growing toward the bypass, such as a Kirkwood Community College regional center and Oak Street Manufacturing, which expanded and moved to the bypass, Manternach said.
"I guess it's a matter of opinion," Manternach said. "It's definitely more convenient with the four-lane to go more quickly to Cedar Rapids or Dubuque, but it takes out the I'm-going-to-drive-through-town-and-stop-and-see-what's-there. If you don't have a reason to go through, you just pass by."
The Iowa DOT's most recent examination of bypasses was prepared by Snyder and Associates Inc., a Cedar Rapids civil engineering firm, in 1999. The study found some individual winners and losers, but as a whole bypasses generally showed a positive economic impact, drew more people to an area and improved safety.
John Fuller, a professor of urban and regional planning at University of Iowa, said bypasses play an important role in "maintaining reliability" in the transportation system — which is particularly important for the shipment of goods — and they improve safety by removing semis from multiuse areas.
Michael W. Babcock, a transportation economist at Kansas State University, in a 2004 bypass study had a slightly grimmer outlook. The bypasses help mobility and have a positive influence regionally — but they can damage the towns being skipped, the study found.
Many businesses said they were worse off, and local jurisdictions incurred additional costs when the old highway route was transferred to them, about $209,240 in maintenance per mile over 20 years, according to Babcock's study.
"It definitely hurts a traffic-borne retail trade," Babcock said. "These firms are fairly adaptable and they try to adjust, but take all that demand away and it's going to hurt."
The Mount Vernon-Lisbon area also can look to its own history.
Highway 30 once ran through the middle of Mount Vernon and Lisbon, but was routed to the south in 1953 due to increasing traffic disrupting their small-town character. In recent years, the installation of two roundabouts on Highway 30 also prompted fears for the future.
"In the past, I would say I was more afraid of it, thinking it would hurt us," said Jill Muckler, owner of the Dairy Queen on Highway 30. "But we survived the roundabout, which was a really bad year for us. We really like the traffic, but I think we are going to be OK."