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Iowa's Roads & Bridges

posted on January 25, 2008 at 1:23 PM


Amid worries about whether Americans can afford gasoline, or this week heating fuel, comes more dispatches that the country is going to need to pony up to rebuild its transportation system.

A report titled "Infrastructure 2007: A Global Perspective," warns the failure to address an emerging crisis in mobility will undermine the ability of the U.S. to compete internationally. The tab to up-grade the nation’s transportation system runs into the billions. The potential cost triggers debate over the design and function of the nation’s highway infrastructure. But recent events have underscored the need.

The Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007 delivered a psychological jolt to drivers everywhere. Just how safe are the bridges we take everyday?

Hours after the shock of the news of the 13 dead from the failed bridge, state departments of transportation sought to reassure motorists that the bridges they cross were still safe.

Iowa was no different. Bridges on a watch list were checked first including the I-74 crossing at the Mississippi River between Bettendorf and Moline Illinois. This bridge and the Iowa 9 bridge at Lansing also passed inspection and remained open.

With nearly 25-thousand Iowa ranks 5th in the nation in number of bridges. Twenty five of the structures were built in the 19th century. The biggest wave of bridge construction was done nearly 65 years ago. Since 1948, Iowa has on average built 35-hundred bridges every decade. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, the average life span of a bridge is 50 to 70 years.

This stretch of I-235 in Des Moines at 42nd street is considered the busiest stretch of road in the state with more than 109 thousand cars a day. The stretch of road was part of Iowa’s largest construction project. The I-235 project tied up downtown for years and was the most ambitious urban interstate reconstruction project in the DOT’s history. A similar project in Council Bluffs will cost nearly double 429 million dollars spent in Des Moines.

Due to the numbers of bridges and miles of highway along with rising construction costs, the DOT warns a transportation crisis is looming.

Ironically, motorists are driving fewer miles and filling up less frequently, so the revenue from the fuel tax, the major funding source for both federal and state construction, is falling.

The federal government provides about a quarter of Iowa’s transportation budget – about 386 million dollars this year. To increase funding at the federal level, a bi-partisan commission has suggested raising the federal gasoline tax by 40 cents a gallon.

Grassley: "You set up a commission to do studying and they come up with an old idea. They haven't done their job. The main reason is, we've got to look for some new ways, of financing highways. And I don't have an answer to that now. But I know that everybody knows that just increasing the gas tax, is not the only way, or best way to do it in the future."

At the state level, lawmakers are reluctant to raise the current 21-cent a gallon tax in an election year. The tax was last raised in 1989. Speaking on the Iowa Press program, Governor Culver said other options should be explored.

Culver from Iowa Press: “Raising the gas tax, I don't think with petroleum $100 a barrel, gas taxes or gas at the pump at record highs is the time to tax Iowans at the pump. You think they had a little concern with expanding the bottle deposit, how about raising the gas tax right now? But there are other options, license fees, for example, registration fees. The legislature can get together any day they choose in a bipartisan way and come up with one of those ten or twelve options.”

But the need persists. In 2005 the legislature required the Iowa DOT to study the Road Use Tax Fund against future needs. The so-called “Transportation Investment Moves the Economy in the 21st Century or “Time 21” panel reported a year later and concluded over the next 20 years there will be a four billion dollar shortfall to finance the most critical construction and maintenance. Moreover, based on current revenues, the DOT says it needs 200 million dollars more to meet basic needs.

The Time 21 group warns if the funding issue is not addressed, the aging infrastructure will damage the state’s economy by making transportation costs too high, limiting opportunities for economic expansion.

Tags: bridges construction infrastructure Iowa roads safety transportation

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