A new year is upon us, a census year in fact. The 2020 census count will likely tell us our seven-county region has experienced moderate growth over the last ten years. This is critical information for planning the future and determining where our region will be in 2030. Our regional growth will contrast the majority of Iowa, which will likely show declined populations.
Using current growth rates, by 2023 our region will surpass 500,000 people, gaining 15,000 more than our current population. More jobs, more business, more economic activity and an increased tax base is exciting, but growth can also bring challenges, like more vehicles.
Planning and anticipating these challenges will keep our region ahead of the game. Making improvements to Interstate 380 by adding lanes is an appropriate investment to help manage this growth. Regional workforce studies show people are willing to drive 37 minutes to reach their place of employment. Without an efficient transportation system, we risk losing our competitive edge.
Shorter commute times are a strong selling point when people are considering moving to our area. Ask anyone who has moved here from a larger city if they liked the hour (or more) commute each day to and from work, the answer is most likely no.
Opponents to adding a lane to I-380 argue that investment increases in public transportation need to be made. I can agree that public transportation improvements should be part of the overall strategy, however those improvements alone are not the entirety of our transportation solution. We will be a seven-county region of 500,000, not an enormous city of five million.
Years ago, I served in the Iowa Legislature. Sens. Jean Lloyd Jones from Iowa City and Wally Horn from Cedar Rapids were seeking funding to study the feasibility of a commuter light rail project between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. I supported that study. The results showed the project was not feasible or economically practical. A feasible solution is additional investment in I-380’s efficiency to move our population effectively.
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A growing region of commuters leads to other advantages. Commuter activity is how the federal government recognizes regions throughout the country. Right now, the ICR region is viewed as two different areas by the federal government due to the commuter activity between our two major cities – Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Expanding our current commuting options by widening I-380 will allow for additional commuters. Being recognized as one metropolitan statistical area (MSA) would bring millions of additional federal economic and community development dollars to our region.
The Des Moines metro area has seen the benefits of interstate improvements. Iowa’s Department of Transportation spent millions of dollars making improvements to Interstate 235. Today, the Des Moines area is the fastest growing region in Iowa and has the highest per capita income.
This issue is not just is about roads, it is about a successful economy. Our region deserves the same investment the Des Moines area received years ago. We are seeing the beginning of that investment with the long-needed reengineering of the I-80/380 interchange, but we can’t stop there. The job needs to be completed by adding additional lanes and interchanges like Tower Terrace to I-380.
Before we know it, 2030 will be here and preparing our region for future economic prosperity requires addressing many issues, transportation being one of them. There is no doubt that I-380 has played a critical role in our region’s success over the last 40 years. We need to continue that success by making these improvements; without them our region will slow economically. Let’s build for the future!
Ron Corbett is business retention and expansion strategist for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and a former mayor of Cedar Rapids.