116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Too many roads, not enough money?
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.
AGRICULTURE SHAPES INFRASTRUCTURE
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.
NOT KEEPING UP
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.