Government

Iowa infrastructure grades improve slightly

Study: Much of the state's systems need attention

Workers use jackhammers to remove concrete around rebar at an expansion joint on the Third Avenue Bridge over the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, May 2, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Workers use jackhammers to remove concrete around rebar at an expansion joint on the Third Avenue Bridge over the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, May 2, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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From railways and roads to drinking water and energy, the systems Iowan’s depend on are only mediocre and need attention, according a report released Thursday by a national professional organization.

The American Society of Civil Engineers released its authoritative 2019 Report Card for Iowa’s Infrastructure, which grades the state in a dozen categories. The last report was in 2015.

Efforts to repair the state’s aging infrastructure have proved somewhat successful, as the group increased Iowa’s overall grade from a C- in 2015 to a C this year.

“While this report card is not one that we want our children to come home with, knowing our grade is the first step to improvement,” said Josh Trygstad, president of ASCE Iowa Section.

The nation’s infrastructure score was a D+, the group said in 2017.

“I know it sounds like obviously not the grade we would want, but there certainly are a number of real positive movements here,” Aaron Moniza, advocacy chair of ASCE Iowa Section, told The Gazette, noting Iowa’s roads, which climbed from a C- in 2015 to a C+ this year.

The passage of a 10-cent fuel tax increase in 2015 has helped funnel more dollars into short-term road needs, but isn’t a long-term fix, Moniza added.

Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, chair of the House Transportation Committee, said the Legislature this session made progress by putting more money into trails and airport infrastructure and passing a supplemental registration fee and excise tax on electric and hybrid vehicles that will produce more revenue for the state Road Use Tax Fund.

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“We do what we can with the money that we have and there’s always an increased need in those infrastructure investments,” she said.

Looking at roads, Hinson said she would consider an inflation-adjusted fuel tax, which is recommended in the ASCE report.

“I would support that. I think it probably should have been done when the gas tax increase was done. I think that would have alleviated ultimately a lot of the heartburn over having to vote to raise the tax again,” said Hinson, who is in her second term.

However, Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, who was involved in the passage of the state’s 10-cent fuel tax increase, doubted that increase would have passed with a provision for inflation increases.

“I am positive that we’re moving the needle,” he said. “I think we’re making progress.”

Both state legislators said they’re hopeful for a compromise on a federal infrastructure package.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, provided comments Thursday via video message. He said he was hopeful Congress and the president can find consensus on a federal infrastructure package and investments in the Federal Highway Trust Fund and do it in a way that would give states more flexibility and reduce requirements that go with the federal money to states.

“Infrastructure is essential to the economy, to trade and to the vitality of every state,” he said.

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U.S. House, Rep. Abby Finkenauer, vice-chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a Thursday statement the group is drafting the next surface transportation authorization bill to provide “hundreds of billions of dollars” to bridges, roads and other transit improvements.

The civil engineers’ report grades infrastructure on capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation.

Moniza said grades are generated using technical reports from federal and state entities, as well as interviews and data collection.

The report identifies a B grade as infrastructure that is good and adequate for now. A D grade indicates it is in poor condition and at risk. Statewide categories that saw improvements include:

• Energy: from a C to a C+

• Inland waterways: from a D to a D+

• Levees: from a C- to a C

• Rail: from a C to a C+

• Roads: from a C- to a C+.

Iowa’s drinking water system, however, fell from a C+ to a C, and solid waste handling dropped from a B+ to a B.

Grades for aviation, (C-), bridges (D+), dams (D) and wastewater (C-) remained unchanged.

A new category in the 2019 report grades Iowa’s parks, recreation and trails, for which the state received a C.

Here are the association’s grades for Iowa’s infrastructure:

Aviation: C-

2015 grade: C-

Iowa’s air transportation system is proving sufficient and provides safe operating conditions. But pavement upgrades have not kept up with needs, despite $41 million invested into airport infrastructure from 2012 through 2017.

Only half of Iowa’s airports met targets in safety and resiliency.

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Recommendations: Pavement maintenance should accelerate, funding must continue or increase and obstructions on runway approaches should be evaluated.

Bridges: D+

2015 grade: D+

Iowa remains first in the nation with the proportion of structurally deficient bridges, with nearly 20 percent last year. The 2015 fuel tax increase aims to address critical highway and bridge needs, but the report notes that significant portions of the system must be addressed.

Recommendations: Maintain focus on bridge repair or replacement; adjust state funding to meet inflation; and make sure electric vehicles pay their share of road taxes.

Dams: D

2015 grade: D

With more than 4,100 dams in the state, Iowa’s State Dam Safety Program budget is below $50 per regulated dam. The national average is $700 per dam. Fewer than half the state’s potentially high hazard dams have emergency plans, compared with 70 percent nationally.

Recommendations: Develop emergency action plans for all high hazard dams; increase state funding for dam inspections; and implement a state revolving fund for repair and maintenance.

Drinking Water: C

2015: C+

While Iowa’s drinking water infrastructure is in fair condition and funding appears sufficient, more revenue is needed to replace systems and build modern treatment plants. More than half the state’s municipal systems are at least 50 years old, with some pipes more than 100 years old.

Recommendations: Surface water contaminants need source mitigation or treatment and additional funding programs could be made available to treatment plant upgrades.

Energy: C+

2015 grade: C

The growth of renewable energy sources, namely wind, have brought down Iowa’s reliance on coal. Reliable energy is key to growth and development, and supplemental production continues to meet demands.

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Recommendations: Continue to diversify Iowa’s energy portfolio, upgrade aging infrastructure and add resiliency to the power grid.

Inland Waterways: D+

2015 grade: D

The Upper Mississippi River and Missouri River waterways contribute more than $4.3 billion in revenue to Iowa’s economy, supporting about 26,000 jobs. But an aging system of locks and dams threatens the industry. The average lock and dam is 80 years old in Iowa, or 30 years beyond the original life span.

Recommendations: Consider user fees for non-navigational and recreational river users; increase funding for upgrades and push for federal legislation aimed at rebuilding the locks and dams system.

Levees: C

2015 grade: C-

Nearly 750 miles of levee exist in Iowa, with several cities receiving funding over the last decade to improve resilience so they can better manage major storm events. Meanwhile, rural areas have struggled to receive funding.

While most levees are functioning, the report notes serious concerns about levee stability during large flood events.

Recommendations: Standardize national inspection and design requirements for levees and provide reliable funding sources for new construction and improvements to existing levees.

Parks, recreation and trails: C

No 2015 grade

As of 2010, only 2 percent of Iowa’s 56,239 square miles was available for public use, putting Iowa 49th in the nation. The Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards reports a $664.4 million backlog of infrastructure, maintenance, expansion and resource protection for Iowa parks and recreation entities.

Recommendations: Encourage communities to adopt a complete streets policy with a long-range transportation plan and create agencies to keep up with the growing desire for recreational areas.

Rail: C

2015 grade: C

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In 2017, railroads operating in Iowa spent about $205 million to maintain and improve rail infrastructure. Limited freight and passenger rail access could inhibit long-term growth and increased investment will be necessary to sustain current service, as well as added capacity.

Recommendations: Promote rail safety, support the development or enhancement of rail industrial projects or intermodal facilities and expand, when necessary, passenger rail services.

Roads: C+

2015 grade: C-

Iowa has nearly 115,000 miles of public roadway, with 2015’s 10-cent fuel tax increase a much-needed source of short-term revenue to address an aging network. Nearly 30 percent of Iowa’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 15 percent of Iowa’s rural roads are in poor condition.

While highway fatalities have dropped and congestion isn’t an issue, the projected shortfall to meet Iowa’s roadway system needs has been estimated at $32.5 billion over the next 20 years.

Recommendations: Advance interstate priority projects, index fuel tax rates to inflation and lead in planning for automated vehicles.

Solid Waste: B

2015 grade: B+

Iowa is home to 47 active landfills, with one site in the process of closing. The average individual landfill capacity is expected to be adequate through 2044.

However, Iowans generated an average .96 annual tons of waste per capita, compared to a national average of .82 tons.

Recommendations: Consider a solid waste management tax to garbage fees — with no tax on recycling waste — and continue waste reduction education.

Wastewater: C-

2015 grade: C-

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Iowa’s aging wastewater infrastructure has created a threat to waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 reported a $2.4 billion need for Iowa wastewater infrastructure improvements over the next 20 years.

About $896 million was invested through federal and state loan and grant programs from 2008 through 2012

Recommendations: Be more aggressive on non-point and point sources of pollution and incorporate redundant systems to improve resiliency and provide more capacity to reduce affluent violations.

• Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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