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Discussion: Iowa's Roads & Bridges

posted on January 30, 2008 at 9:46 AM

Nancy Richardson is director of the Iowa Department of Transportation and Tom Rielly is chairman of the Iowa Senate Transportation committee.

Yeager: First question is reaction to the piece there about the quality of our roads. There was a study done recently about what the state of our roads look like, director Richardson, and one of them just said that we just do not have good roads in the urban interstate area. That's what this graphic refers to that we have seen here. Iowa is in the bottom five. What are the state of our roads right now?

Richardson: Well, as the piece mentioned, we’ve got a very large system. I think you mentioned that we've got 114,000 miles of roads and 25,000 bridges. As mentioned, that makes us fifth in the number of bridges and twelfth in the number of miles of roads. We conversely have -- we are about 30th in population and about 23rd in land mass, so I always say to folks there is the good news and the bad news.

We have a lot of road system in this state under the jurisdiction of the state, the counties, and the cities. We have a lot of miles of road and that's good when you want to get from point "a" to point "b," but then you've got to take care of that. And a lot of that system was built all in a period of time in the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, and is aging, of course, all at the same time. So we have sort of a glut of roads and bridges that are coming to the end of their useful life. And roads and bridges are really no different -- you can liken it to a house or any other kind of infrastructure you want.

There's a certain life to it. You can do repair. The roof on your house, you know, you can fix a shingle here or there or you can do some patchwork for a while, and you can do the same with roads and bridges. But at some point in time, you have to rebuild it, do a whole other roof on that house, rather than just patch it. And a lot of the roads and bridges in this state are to the point where they need major work.

Now, having said that, are people traveling on bridges and roads that are unsafe? Absolutely not. If there is a bridge or a road segment that is unsafe after inspection, then it's closed either by the county, the city, or the state. And while that may inconvenience people, safety is the primary consideration. But what we face is if we don't address those needs, the deterioration will go further.

The cost to do something will be even higher than if we do something now. So I think the recent report that you talked about, it did identify Iowa’s urban interstate and actually its primary system, which is the state system. Both of those were in the bottom five. The condition of our road system, it needs attention. I think people think unless they see a pothole, you know, if -- we understand potholes but we don’t understand --

Yeager: There's much more to the road or much more to the bridge that needs damage -- that needs to be repaired.

Richardson: So it's a big system. It's aging. It was all built at a time when it's now coming to a critical point in its age, and it needs a lot of attention if we're going to be able to keep it open and use it in the ways that we want.

Yeager: Sounds like we have something that's going to need some money, and the department can generate some revenue but the legislature also helps out. Senator, what role -- where does the money come from, and where are your priorities to get money?

Rielly: We recognize we have a need. Time 21 passed, I mean, overwhelmingly in both the house and the senate. The policy language is in place. Now, the tough part is finding the dollars to fill that up, to fill up the fund. You know, I understand the challenges that we face -- or I the-- understand the governor's concerns, and I have the exact same concerns. You know, gas is hovering around $3 a gallon, down to about $2.70 now. But it's going to fluctuate, but it's expensive right now. And times are tight; I truly do appreciate that. But the fact of the matter is we've got to somehow fix up our roads. Just a quick number -- because I think the perception out there for a gas tax, you know, a one-cent increase in the gas tax would generate about $22 million. Four cents, that’s $88 million. But the real interesting part about that is the average financial impact on the average Iowan, the annual impact is $18 a year for a 4-cent increase.

Yeager: So would you sponsor a --

Rielly: I keep my options all open. Now, I recognize the governor's position. I respect the governor's position. And if the end of the day, if that's not part of the package, I’m not going to throw my hands up and say woe is me and we're just going to walk away from this. These roads and bridges, we have to support the infrastructure. And there are other sources. There’s been a long-time inequity in a lot of people's eyes, including mine, in how pickup trucks are registered. A $65 annual registration fee for, you know, a pickup truck, whether it's a $100 pickup truck that a teenager is driving or a $50,000 dually that's out there. I think there is an inequity out there. We have 770,000 trucks that are out there, and it's glaring.

Yeager: So you talk about trucks. We'll get to that in a moment. But just quickly on the gas tax, half of your colleagues in the senate are up for reelection this year. The house is all up for -- how does anybody go back and campaign on saying I raise your taxes?

Rielly: Well, you do it together. You do it in a bipartisan manner. You know, again, I hope -- that's another misperception -- there are some people that will never vote for any kind of a tax increase. I understand that. But there are republican and there are democratic colleagues in the senate that recognize this, and they're willing to keep everything on the table. They're willing to work in a bipartisan manner.

Yeager: Director Richardson, you talk about -- you were asked to come up with funding streams by the governor, and he said 10 to 12 of them were good. You know, one of them was the fuel tax. What are some of those --?

Richardson: That's a pretty good ratio.

Yeager: Yeah, I think that's good. That's a good batting average. That will get you in the hall of fame. What are some of those other things? We mentioned truck registration. What other revenues can the dot generate?

Richardson: We identified a wide array of vehicle registration fee changes that all generate a fair amount of money. Senator talked about specifically about pickup fees, but there are a number of other vehicle registration items that haven’t been addressed for ten, fifteen, twenty years. For example, generally if you keep a car long enough, it goes to a minimum registration fee over time, and that is $35. It's been $35 for a very long time. $35, while that is real money to register your vehicle for a year, is really not a lot of money. And we had a proposal; one of the options was to raise that to $50. I mean that's not a lot, but it still --

Yeager: Not much, $15.

Richardson: It still generates millions of dollars simply doing that. Another option is the way registration fees are handled in Iowa; you go from 100 percent for a few years, to 75 percent for a year, to 50 percent for a couple, and then to the minimum. You can elongate that path, add a couple of years along the way so you stay at 100 percent a little longer, and millions of dollars can be generated that way. Driver's license fees, we go in and we currently pay -- well, we get them for four or five years in a row. But we pay a $4 fee a year for the right to drive. Four dollars isn't going to buy you lunch most of the time. And so the idea that we could increase driver's license fees and have those generate a little bit more revenue. And then we had some other options. Use tax -- we have the use tax on vehicles. Iowans understand sales tax and they pay sales tax on many of the things they buy. Well, for lack of a better analogy, the sales tax that you pay on a car is called a use tax in Iowa. And because it's not considered the normal sales tax, it never has gotten the benefit of any of the local option extra penny or two. So it stays at 5 percent. Lots of people don't know that. They don't know that when they buy a car, they're paying 5 percent tax because they're paying 6 percent on almost everything else. So that's a $54-million difference at one penny of motor vehicle use tax. So that's in the mix. And then there were some others that we don't currently do that are a little bit different. Severance tax on exported ethanol is one of the options that we looked at. There are some ways to do some local taxing districts that allow people to tax themselves if they want a road. So there's sort of a wide array of things.

Yeager: It sounds like a lot of taxes mixed into this one, but we also have priorities across the state. You are the department of transportation for the state of Iowa, but we have a map of some of the projects here that either are underway or close to being finished or are a little closer to being on the burner. One is in northwest Iowa. We talk about Iowa 60 from Lemars to Minnesota, making that a four-lane road. Interstate 80 in Council Bluffs, that's a project that's going to double what the 235 project was in terms of cost in there. Des Moines to Burlington, that's a route that senator Rielly takes home through Oskaloosa, that's a four-lane road, trying to complete that to Burlington. I80 in Coralville, that's one that's expanding to four lanes. The I74 bridge we mentioned. Julian Dubuque is one maybe a little farther out, but one that's not on here is the highway 20 corridor. Where does that project stand, and will we see it from Sioux City to Dubuque?

Richardson: Highway 20 has already been four-laned, I think as you know, from the eastern edge of the state to around Fort Dodge. There's about 100 miles left that is not four-laned in western Iowa. It will be four-laned. The question that remains -- it's not whether, it's how soon, it's when. We currently have in our five-year program, which is how we deal with approving projects, with the help of our dot commission. We currently have the first of three segments of that in the program from about an 18-, 19-mile segment, as I recall, that gets it over to highway 4. And we made it clear in the report you referenced when we looked at the sufficiency of the road use tax fund and the needs in the state, we had a map in that report that identified six or eight or nine key corridors where the work would be accelerated if we had more money. Highway 20 is one of those where we would like to pick up the pace on that and do it faster than we're able to do it. Same with segments of 30 where we go from two to four and then we choke back down to two. So finishing 20 in the western part the state, finishing key segments of 30, the I-34 bridge, the Iowa 34 bridge in Glenwood, some work on the interstate, the interstate rebuild that you talked about in council bluffs, there's another one in Sioux City.

Yeager: That's a long, long list of things. A lot of it is economic development, senator. That is something that is very important in many regions.

Rielly: Particularly we're just scratching the surface of the new bio-economy. We have ethanol plants and we've got the next generation of agriculture that I think is going to really start driving this state forward. We are really on the verge of some great times, but we're going to need some solid infrastructure to move that product from the fields to the plants, to the ethanol plants, to the biodiesel plants, to the plants that we haven't even thought of yet. We have a very solid livestock industry in this state. So we need -- it's vital to that new economy. And not just to mention -- just take a look at the four lanes that have been created and just look at the growth that has been created because of that.

Yeager: Okay, you talk about rural reaches of those products. Do we need all of our roads across the state? Can't we just shut some of them down, or do we need them all, maintain them all?

Rielly: It's a good question and I suppose it's a good idea to shut down a gravel road unless it's my gravel road.

Yeager: Exactly.

Rielly: But I think we need to have that conversation, though. And I think that conversation needs to start at the county supervisors and with the dot with us and the local -- you know, are there ways to turn more of those roads into more crop ground? I don't know. We haven't even talked about that yet, but I think we need to have that discussion.

Richardson: Well, and one of the other things, if I might -- Senator referenced that the legislature unanimously or overwhelmingly approved the Time 21 bill. They approved a bill last year that dealt with the policy side of it. What they did in that bill, in addition to creating the fund and creating -- by the way, these funds aren't just for the dot and the state system. They also go to the counties and the cities for their system. They approved a split. But they also approved the targeting of these new funds to roads and bridges that do handle the most traffic in this state. So there is language in the bill that was passed last year that directs the funds that the state gets, the dot will get to the interstate and primary road system, the segment of that that carries the most of our traffic, 2000-, 3,000-mile segments of that. On the county level, it targets it to bridges because they've got the most bridges and the most that are in need and certain highly traveled segments of their system and the same at the city system. So, yes, there are a lot of roads out there, and actually probably about 70,000 miles of those are gravel, by the way, so there's a lot of gravel.

Yeager: I've got ten seconds so I need one more question to Senator Rielly. Do we think we'll see the gas tax happen this session? In ten seconds. 50/50 chance?

Rielly: 50/50, I'll go that. As I said, we've got an awful lot of work. We've got a lot of education to do.


Tags: bridges infrastructure Iowa roads transportation