TAMA — On a frigid and windy day this month, the two-lane stretch of Highway 30 between Tama and Cedar Rapids is picturesque yet treacherous with a steady stream of semis barreling across the rolling topography at 65 or 70 mph.
Not long after entering Tama, you find the source of a chunk of that traffic, which has spiked since the reopening of a long-dormant beef packing plant on the east edge of town.
Iowa Premium Beef opened in November and churns 50-some tractor trailers a day and hundreds of employee vehicles. As production ramps up, so will traffic on Highway 30.
“It’s going to be a nightmare,” predicted Heath Kellogg, executive director of Tama County Economic Development Commission. “It’s already a nightmare.”
There’s a 27-mile gap between Tama and 218 where Highway 30 squeezes from a four-lane divided highway into two lanes adjoining. Kellogg is among those pushing to widen the segment to four lanes, which aligns with the four-lane road west of Tama and east of 218.
The startup beef processor is backed by a subsidiary of the Fortune 100 Sysco Corp., and invested $48 million to upgrade and reopen the facility.
Dean Hanish, Iowa Premium chief financial officer, said they have hired 490 people on their way to 600. Capacity will be 1,000 head of cattle per day, with approximately 34 cows carried per truck, and then additional truck traffic from vendors.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
The next phase will add a second shift at the plant, essentially doubling employment and production, he said.
While traffic can go in all directions, it’s particularly heavy heading east.
“It does put a lot of activity on the east side of Tama,” Hanish said.
The topic of Highway 30 is a sensitive one for the plant.
Earlier this month, two employees died in a wreck on Highway 30 at the intersection with V-18, about 10 miles east of Tama. Dwight Conway, 62, of Hot Springs, Ark., oversaw cattle procurement, and Phillip Core, 56, of Pleasantville, was a cattle buyer for Iowa Premium.
Both were pronounced dead at the scene when the pickup Conway was driving failed to stop and was broadsided by a semi at about 2 p.m. on Feb. 4.
Since 2004, the two-lane stretch of road has had 372 crashes, including 15 fatalities and 170 injuries, and in the past five years traffic has picked up 15 percent on Highway 30 east of Tama, according to Iowa DOT records.
“It’s dangerous,” said Kellogg, who has expressed his views to Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino. “With the hills and topography alone it’s dangerous. Then add all the truck traffic and employees.”
Kellogg contends many transportation dollars go to projects aimed to attract economic development, but this is a case where they’ve already landed the big project and now they need to support it.
Some will point to the inconsistency at the location. The plant opened in the 1970s and run until 1999 as Tama Pack, but then changed hands several times, then sat dormant since 2004.
Kellogg said the investment made by the company as well as its wealthy backer are signs of stability and that the projections should be believed.
In town, local residents say the impact of the plant is already being felt.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“It’s a lot busier,” said John Karkosh, owner of Tama Florists. “I think if they made the road wider, it would be safer.”
The Iowa Department of Transportation had a 13-mile stretch of Highway 30 from 218 to 21 scheduled to be finished in 2018 as part of a $65 million project. After disagreement over a proposed J-Turn where 218 and 30 intersect, it was bumped off the list — although the acquisition of land continued.
The DOT is now proposing an interchange there, but it can’t proceed until the project is added back on the DOT’s five-year road plan, which still is being developed. It should be adopted in June.
If the Iowa Legislature approves the gas-tax increase — which has been moving through the Iowa House and Senate — it could shape the conversation about which projects get added to the road plan, said Stuart Anderson, Iowa DOT director of the planning, programming and modal division.
The Benton County portion of Highway 30 is further along the process of getting widened, but the Tama County portion also is identified as a priority corridor along with Highway 20 in western Iowa and 61 in southeast Iowa, Anderson said. It’s important, but there are many needs around the state, he said.
“If additional funding comes, in March and April I would expect an in-depth conversation about what to do with the money, and that would be very much a key part of the discussion,” he said.
Edith Pfeffer, president of the U.S. Highway 30 coalition, which aims for four lanes across Iowa, said with the return of the beef plant, the project can’t wait.
“Unfortunately the road is beginning to return to conditions in the 1950s before 80 was built, and carrying all that truck traffic, and carrying all the beef to Chicago,” she said.