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Iowa's Infrastructure - Planes, Trains and the Internet

posted on February 26, 2008

An overview of Iowa’s infrastructure that moves people, commodities, energy and communications would show it to be multilayered and complex.

Over time parts have been sliced away for reasons of efficiency. Other parts have not been deployed as well as they might have been, and still another infrastructural component would seem to be now over built and demanding of resources that are becoming scarcer.

The state’s infrastructure has changed in the last 20 years. But oft times it has changed to enhance the short-term bottom line of businesses rather than rather than future needs of a complex economy.

From 1983 to 1989 the state enjoyed commercial air service to 11 airports. Today, there are just 8 in-state commercial airports – served by nine major airlines. A 1999 study titled “Iowa In Motion” recommended expanding commercial air service across Iowa. The report said it would be a good investment for the state – to offer more hubs and lower fares. But the air travel economics spoke more convincingly, service was discontinued to Clinton, Ottumwa and Spencer.

Even so, air travel has increased since the time of that study – up 150-thousand passengers since 1999 to a total of 1.6 million passengers in 2005.

(SLUG rail road traffic)

Historically, much of the Iowa economy has depended upon rail transportation as the primary freight haulers in the state. Iowa’s peak rail year was 1911 when the state had 10,500 miles of track. Today, that number is more than cut in half to 4,023 miles of railroad track. Over the years, as the big rail companies abandoned track, smaller so-called “shortline” rails came into existence. Many were started by rural communities and co-ops to move goods to and from the industries located in rural towns, to the track the big carriers were still operating. Of the 20 rail companies in the state, more than half the cargo is transported by just three carriers.

But the railroads may be making a comeback of sorts. With the recent ethanol boom, several carriers, including Iowa Northern and Iowa Interstate are profiting from the boom by hauling the finished the product and bi-product of ethanol. Some new rail spurs have been built around and to biofuel plants to connect them to existing rail routes.

The rail industry is also seeing a spike in passenger traffic. For example, over the last five years, Iowa ridership is up to 61-thousand riders.

But the major passenger service, Amtrak, runs through southern Iowa, mostly through small towns. Many argue ridership would increase if service were located in urban areas. Several groups in the state would like to see high-speed rail expanded to Iowa and more metropolitan areas designated as stops.

Last month, Amtrak released a feasibility study of the state of Illinois-supported rail service between Chicago to the Illinois Quad Cities. Those who lobbied for this route think the line could eventually extend into Iowa connecting to larger areas along I-80. Annual ridership was estimated at 111-thousand on two daily round trip Illinois routes. Expansion advocates would like to see the line extended westward to Iowa City and Des Moines.

To that end Iowa has joined the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission to spur further discussion.

Rail may be in Iowa's future, but most in the state still rely on roads. The state is 12th in the nation in total road miles and 5th, nationally in the number of bridges at nearly 25-thousand. And many are in need of repair.

With the number of tractor trailers increasing on the highways and putting stress on existing roads, money to fix the state's roads is in short supply. The DOT has projected a $200m annual shortfall without new revenue streams like fuel taxes to finance needed road maintenance and construction.

Also aging is an infrastructure the public doesn't often see, but is one critical to the state’s emerging knowledge economy. It is a network of 66-hundred miles of fiber lines built in 1991.

Called the Iowa Communications Network, the $200 (M) million plus fiber-optic network facilitates distance learning. It connects 758 classrooms across the state and students use it to access a variety of courses their schools don’t offer, including high school, advanced placements and college credit courses. The ICN also is used to provide internet service to 60% of school districts.

A variety of state agencies use it as well to reduce travel costs for meetings. Even parole hearings are conducted on the ICN.

Iowa is moving forward rapidly on wind energy. Wind turbines blanket the landscape in several areas of the state, mostly northwest Iowa. But getting that power for where it's generated to where it's needed remains a serious hurdle. Major transmission lines run between larger metro areas, but the wind turbines are mostly in farm fields. Getting the power to the current grid, or expanding the grid and who pays for the upgrades and controls it is a big question.


Tags: airplanes development economy infrastructure Internet Iowa politics technology trains transportation