Government

Digital or dead-tree? Debate over Iowa road maps continues at Statehouse

Digital version of the Iowa Transportation Map. (Iowa Department of Transportation)
Digital version of the Iowa Transportation Map. (Iowa Department of Transportation)

DES MOINES — In 2014, as the use of MapQuest, Waze, Google Maps and Apple Maps was increasing, the Iowa Department of Transportation and Legislature decided to cut back on the number of printed maps they made available.

It was not a universally popular decision. Lawmakers were split between those who said their constituents preferred the folding maps and those who predicted it would be only a matter of time before the paper maps would become obsolete.

However, the DOT sought the change due to a reduction in Iowa DOT budget funding starting in 2013, the department transitioned to a two-year Transportation Map print cycle similar to that of many other states faced with a reduction in use of paper maps due to travelers utilizing electronic routing applications, according to Mark Hansen, a DOT transportation planner.

The Legislature went ahead with reducing the $365 million transportation budget by about $120,000 that year and cut the number of maps printed.

“It’s not a budget-breaker, but some people think it’s a waste of money,” Rep. Dan Huisman, R-Aurelia, said then.

When the topic came up earlier this month in a House debate over a $394 million transportation budget, Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, didn’t call the maps a waste of money, but said she doesn’t think taxpayers should have to foot the bill for your paper map. She waged an unsuccessful attempt to redirect the $242,000 budgeted for maps for the next two year to other purposes.

There’s also an issue of fairness, she said.

“I feel it doesn’t make sense in a time when more and more people are using apps for their phones for us to be buying and purchasing those maps every other year to the tune of $242,000,” Mascher said. “If people want to buy a map for Iowa that’s fine, but nobody pays for my app on the phone. So I look at that and think there’s some inequities there. If people want those maps they should have the right to buy them. The state shouldn’t be footing that bill.”

Regardless of who pays for the maps, DOT and state tourism officials say there remains a demand for the paper maps.

Travelers enjoy the convenience of a smartphone map they can hold in the palm of their hand, but some have learned through their experiences with global positioning system (GPS) devices that low-tech paper maps can prove to be more reliable than their digital replacements.

“A paper map provides reliability and answers to questions sometimes not available with a GPS device,” Hansen says. “Mobile telephone service isn’t always available, batteries drain, data plans have limits and databases driving these devices go out of date. Paper maps allow a larger view of the area being traveled through, do not rely on a battery or mobile telephone service, are up-to-date and have a high degree of confidence by users.”

The state’s tourism office distributed more than 60,000 maps in 2019 and reports they are “very popular” at welcome centers. Unless someone specifically asks for a map, they are not included with an Iowa Travel Guide, said Jessica O’Riley of the Iowa Economic Development Authority tourism office.

“A small number of people have contacted us to request a map after they received their travel guide,” she said. “I just took a request this week from someone for a map so there is still interest in them.”

DOT planner Mark Hansen can confirm there’s a demand for the multicolored road maps.

DOT printed 1.4 million copies of the 2019-20 map at a cost of 14.73 cents each for a total of $206,220, he said. It printed 1.6 million maps for 2017-18 at 12.4 cents each and 1.6 million at a cost of 15.1 cents each in 2015-16.

The maps are distributed free at DOT offices, at rest areas and Welcome Centers, and state driver’s license stations as well as county driver’s license stations. The maps also are available to order, and mailed out when requested. The map is also available online.

The DOT monitors the usage of the maps and makes efforts to match supply with the demand when determining the upcoming quantity to print. It has run out of maps several years.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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