Government

State not pursuing I-80 tollways, despite being financially feasible

Traffic moves past road construction work along Interstate 80 south of North Liberty on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Entrance and exit ramps are being added to provide alternative access points to North Liberty and Coralville. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Traffic moves past road construction work along Interstate 80 south of North Liberty on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Entrance and exit ramps are being added to provide alternative access points to North Liberty and Coralville. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

While a recent study found that installing tollways along Interstate 80 would feasibly fund widening the interstate, don’t expect to see tolls on Iowa roads any time soon.

A December Toll Financing Study, which is part of a larger I-80 planning study by the Iowa Department of Transportation, states that using tolls to pay for nearly $4 billion in interstate improvements would be financially feasible. However, Iowa DOT Director Mark Lowe said, at this point in time, the state is putting the brakes on any tollway discussions for I-80.

“It’s just not a good fit for a rural, farm to market state like Iowa,” Lowe said. “Tolling certainly has a place, particularly in highly urbanized, highly controlled, highly congested corridors, but that’s not really how to describe Iowa’s system.”

I-80 proposed toll locations from 2017 Toll Financing Study

Map by John McGlothlen / The Gazette

In addition, Lowe said public and stakeholder input must be factored when considering such a change to one of Iowa’s most-traveled interstates.

Brenda Neville, president and CEO of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said the organization has a long standing position against tolling.

“Any proposal that relies on fake funding schemes like highway tolls, will not generate the revenue necessary to make significant infrastructure improvements. As we all know, a well-maintained, reliable and efficient network of highways is vital to our state’s economy so we believe that a user fee on all transportation fuels; including diesel and gasoline is the best way to go when it comes to funding infrastructure improvements,” Neville said in an email.

Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said another challenge in Iowa is that tolls often motivate motorists to take alternative routes. In Iowa, when you can enter and exit the interstate at several locations across the state, those detours could force congestion onto back roads, he said.

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What’s more, the state does not currently have authority to enact tolls on the interstate — they would require Federal Highway Administration authorization and state legislation to come to fruition.

Lowe said the study considered the possibility of tolls as a means to fund expedited modernization and widening of I-80.

According to the study, revenue generated from 11 tolls, from Council Bluffs to the Quad Cities, would be enough to fund a nearly $4 billion six-lane widening and modernization of rural I-80 across the state, if all lanes were tolled. Those tolls would also fund continued operations and maintenance of the 248 miles of interstate.

“No additional public funding would likely be required,” the report states.

Toll rates would be 8 cents per mile for passenger vehicles and 24 cents per mile for trucks, with an annual 2 percent increase in toll rates to account for inflation, the report states.

According to the report, the revenue from those tolls would cover the five-year widening project, proposed for 2022 to 2026.

However, Lowe said the roughly $3.6 billion upfront cost — and potential debt financing that goes with it — of the tollway project goes against Iowa’s “pay as you go” mentality. In addition, I-80 is only congested in certain areas, which means widening the interstate isn’t a current need across the entire state.

“From a planning side, we don’t need 6 lanes by 2027,” Lowe said.

Widening along I-80 has begun in some areas, including near Iowa City and Coralville.

Nationally, the White House earlier this year announced an infrastructure plan with a focus on spurring locally funded projects.

The plan would devote $200 billion over 10 years, with the hope of leveraging enough private investment to inject $1.5 trillion into roads, bridges and other initiatives.

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Iowa’s infrastructure needs have been well-documented, as the state often finds itself ranked near the top of the list when it comes to aging and deficient roads and bridges.

In 2015, Iowa lawmakers increased the state gas tax by 10 cents per gallon with hopes of pumping more funds into the state’s backlog of necessary road and bridge projects.

By the end of last year, the increase had generated an extra $515 million for state and local governments to address infrastructure needs.

“Overall, I think we’re making a lot of good progress. I see it out in the counties with bridges being replaced,” said Kapucian.

Per the study, potential toll locations included:

• Mile marker 10 in Pottawattamie County near Council Bluffs

• Mile marker 31 in Pottawattamie County near Council Bluffs

• Mile marker 59 in Cass County near Atlantic and Highway 71

• Mile marker 91 in Adair County near West Des Moines

• Mile marker 116 in Dallas County near West Des Moines

• Mile marker 146 in Polk County near Des Moines

• Mile marker 176 in Jasper County near Grinnell

• Mile marker 208 in Iowa County near Marengo

• Mile marker 234 in Johnson County near Iowa City

• Mile marker 257 in Cedar County near West Branch

• Mile marker 279 in Scott County near Davenport

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

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