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Iowa Transportation and Roads

posted on November 15, 2013

Moving Iowa.  Roads and bridges key toIowa's vitality needing attention.  We're questioning transportation experts, DOT Director Paul Trombino III, State Representative Josh Byrnes and Iowa Good Roads Association Executive Director Dave Scott on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation.  Iowa Banks know you want honest advice about how to best reach your financial goals whether it is financing an education, buying a new home, growing a business or funding retirement. Iowabanks,Iowavalues.  MyIowaBank.com. IowaCommunications Network.  The ICN is committed to the enhancements of distance learning and continues to meet the demands for greater access of high speed internet by educational users.  Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, forIowa, for ever.  Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org.  Alliant Energy, working to help small businesses control energy costs with energy efficient equipment and advice on smart energy use.  Information is available at alliantenergy.com.

For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from acrossIowaand beyond.  Celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, November 15 edition of Iowa Press.  Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Good roads and bridges carryIowa's economy.  But with changing driving habits and more fuel efficient vehicles, the revenue coming from fuel taxes isn't keeping up with the costs of maintaining what we have, not to mention improving or expanding our transportation infrastructure.  Frequent proposals for boosting fuel taxes are getting increasing support, but not enough yet to show up at the gas pumps.  Now,Iowa's Department of Transportation is floating a number of other ideas to lawmakers and stakeholders that could help fund transportation projects in the future.  And we're seeking perspective from the Director of Iowa's Department of Transportation, the DOT, Paul Trombino III.  State Representative Josh Byrnes, who chairsIowalegislature's House Transportation Committee.  And theIowaGood Roads Association's Executive Director Dave Scott.  Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Thank you.

Thank you, Dean.

Borg: We're going to cover a lot of ground today here, that's intentional.  Across the table, Lee Enterprises State Capitol Bureau Chief Mike Wiser and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Trombino, let's start with you.  First, describe the scope of the problem.

Trombino: I'll tell you the scope of the problem is really arising in the future.  Our revenues have been fairly consistent I'd say over the last few years.  We have been able to make really good efficiency changes in how we manage those dollars, which has made some fairly large programs.  But as we project those dollars into the five-year program we'll have real less dollars to the tune of about $150 million just on the primary highway system by the time we hit 2018.  That is going to have a real impact into the system, a real outcome and it means that we're really going to have to make some decisions ultimately of how we invest those dollars in the transportation system.

Henderson: Mr. Scott, when you speak to groups, how do you describe the problem?

Scott: Well, you know, we've been talking about this now for 7, 10 years.  I pray that the legislature does not come back and ask for another study.  We've had five studies in the last ten years.  Each study has come back with the same results, that we're $200 million plus short of meeting our critical needs.  There is absolutely, I mean, this is the longest period of time in the history of Iowa, since we've had the gas tax, since 1925, this is the longest period we've gone without increasing the user fee.  There is absolutely no reason why we should put it off any longer.  I mean, the need is there, we've had people tell us that oh well I'll take a look at it, we looked at savings.  As the Director pointed out, the DOT has done a great job of looking at their program.  There's what, 1,000 fewer employees than there were 10, 12 years ago.  They have reduced field offices by 39 I believe.  So we can't save ourselves into this.  It's time to do what needs to be done.

Wiser: But the proposed solution for this for all these years has always been a user fee increase, a fuel tax.  Josh Byrnes, you're in the legislature, why hasn't that happened?

Byrnes: Well, I mean, the obvious answer is politics is preventing some of this from happening.  I mean, we have a lot of folks that are, they're worried about a tax increase.  We have some individuals that take these anti-tax pledges, that they don't want to see a tax increase happen.  And it's disappointing because really when it comes down to it that infrastructure piece is an essential function of government.  And, you know, it gets frustrating to have those barriers when you know what needs to be done.  I'm a legislator that has, you know, I've got I35, I've Highway 218, I've got Highway 9, Highway 52, Highway 63, I'm in this type of a district where we need to have that proper funding for our infrastructure. And it is an important economic development tool.  This last week I met with a school board and their superintendent about their legislative priorities for this next session and one of their priorities was increase funding for roads because the amount of damage that is happening to their school buses and it is taking that money away from offering opportunities for students in the school district because they're spending it on repair costs on their buses.  So it is really becoming an epidemic issue in the state and we've got to address this.

Borg: Do you think that the roads, the rural roads in that particular district, what was it, what district?

Byrnes:ForestCity.

Borg:ForestCity.  Are worse in northernIowathan, Mr. Trombino, than they are anywhere else?  Is that an outlier?

Trombino: No, yeah, I would say that if you go across, especially on the secondary system, the local system, there are a lot of significant issues.  That has to do with the size of the system though.  We have a robust system, 114,000 lane miles, 25,000 bridges in this state and when you look at the travel and how that system was built there has been a lot of change.  How we utilize the system is significantly different today and likely will be in the future.  So you're seeing a lot of secondary local road conditions significantly deteriorating.

Borg: Put a finer point on that, what I was trying to get at is geographically is one section of the state in greater need than another section of the state?

Trombino: I don't see that.  I see that it is fairly consistent and uniform.

Borg: I have a list of things that you have been peddling around the state here, peddling may be an unkind term but it has a list of things that you're proposing as possible funding concepts.  One of them is increasing the fee for new vehicle registrations, boosting it from 5% to 6%.  And I'm wondering, what kind of a reaction are you getting to proposals that you're making to stakeholders around the state?

Trombino: Yeah, I would say for the most part it has been a very positive conversation.  And part of that reason is, is that we're talking about the transportation system.  A lot of the conversation that has happened over the last few years has been about the gas tax, as it has sort of been discussed, it hasn't been about why transportation matters, why transportation is important to the citizens and what they want out of the system.  And I think as we propose broader ideas we're really getting at issues of what they want to see in the transportation system, how they want it to function and what they want it to be.  So the conversations have been actually very, very positive.

Borg: Another one of those ideas, though, is -- and this is where I think you're going to run into some opposition if you haven't talked to these people already -- farm fuel right now is not taxed and is dyed I think red or something like that to identify it as non-taxed fuel. 

Trombino: That's correct.

Borg: Now you're proposing let's tax that fuel.

Trombino: And the conversations, we did talk to the Farm Bureau, we met with, we have met with just about any group that wants to meet over this last month and I'd say that the first concept is to set that aside and let's describe the issue that is happening in the rural system.  I've heard from farmers since I've been here about the challenges they have to move their equipment, move their crops, get them to market because of challenges with structurally deficient bridges, bridges that are weight restricted, bridges that are closed, rural road conditions and is causing them more out of distance travel.  What we were coming back to say is look, if we can come up with a mechanism to fund that, let's target that specific issue to unbundle the system, get rid of some of those width restrictions that a lot of the equipment can't get through over rural bridges or road conditions and be able to target what is what I would call a 21st century farm to market system, which is a road, rail and water system. What is that system?

Borg: Big increase in production costs though for farmers.

Trombino: Sure.  But ultimately it will help deliver their product to market and I think that is the key issue.

Henderson: Mr. Trombino, you chose to keep this list secret, you didn't release it to the general public, you released it to sets of people.  Why did you make that choice?  And in a Branstad administration which says transparency is one of its goals?

Trombino: Well, I would disagree that we kept it secret.

Henderson: We asked you at a news conference if you would release the list to us and you said no.

Trombino: The conversation was you asked if we were ready to release it and I answered the question we were not.  We were still tweaking the information.  And what we wanted to do was there were a lot of stakeholder groups, Farm Bureau is an example, and other groups that had requested and we work with them closely and I'm advocating we have distributed to the public.  We wanted to use that mechanism to get out that information to them so that people could look at the information and make decisions.  I think as anything gets then consumed in the media there can be a different perspective change.  But at least there was a base document that we had the ability to share from ourselves across constituents and across citizens and we distributed that widely across the state.

Henderson: Mr. Byrnes, was that a mistake to keep this list secret so that people already were suspicious of it?

Byrnes: You know, again, I don't know that, I don't know all the happenings behind the scenes in terms of the list or whatever.  I did get a copy of the list as transportation director and I guess I didn't know who else had received a list or who didn't receive a list.  I will say that, you know, I give the DOT credit for putting these proposals together.  I think we have to start some out of the box thinking and start coming up with some new ideas.  But I really think and the approach that I've been taking on this is that this needs to be two phases.  Phase one we need to get money in the pipeline and I'm a strong proponent of the fuel tax and I will continue to be.  That to me is phase one.  We've got to get that money in the pipeline.  Phase two is we have got to start to use some of these ideas that the DOT is bringing forward and some of this out of the box thinking so we have some sustainable models, so we don't keep coming back to this fuel tax argument all the time and we've got to have something long-term that fluctuates as mileage, you know, better fuel efficient vehicles or what have you but --

Henderson: But is any of this really outside the box thinking?  These are already existing fees and taxes that are just being realigned, you're not actually charging people, as they're doing in the state ofOregon, for example, for the number of miles they drive, Mr. Trombino.

Trombino: Correct.  And I would advocate that there is a specific reason for that.  And there's really two issues before you.  If you think of gas and diesel and the amount that is getting used, clearly that is on the decline for a number of reasons.  If you look at vehicle miles traveled, that has also been declining, even in our state is has declined.  For other states it has even been significantly worse.  One of the areas that I would advocate is there's been a lot of discussion about vehicle miles traveled.  But tell me what the differences is going to vehicle miles traveled versus gas and diesel when they're both in decline.  It is really the mechanism that you're choosing.  And I'm advocating today the technology for vehicle miles traveled, some of the complexity it brings forward is not ready very clearly.

Borg: Mr. Scott, what is the best revenue source?  Of all you've heard here, and you've seen the list.

Scott: For years we've been talking about all these things that we could do.  Going back over the years we could increase registration fees, we could increase license fees, we could increase trailer fees, all these number of things that we could do.  My position all along, it's time to do what we should do and should have done all along and that is increase the user fee.  It is the most fair system we have.  It is paid for by the people that use the highways.  It is the only way we have to collect money from people outside ofIowathat use our highways.  You know, when you have groups like the Iowa Motor Truck Association and there's nobody that burns more fuel than trucking companies and they're one of the biggest proponents we have for increasing the fuel tax.  It takes, it takes an average truck 58 gallons to cross the state, just to drive across the state and they're calling for an increase in user fees because they know that a safe and efficient system is the beset thing for their business and for the safety of their drivers and the vehicles around their trucks.

Borg: Mike, I interrupted.

Wiser: Since we're talking about user fees, the road problem seems to be mostly in rural areas.  That is where you see counties going out for funding to redo their roads in rural areas.  So why should urban Iowans be interested in a fuel tax?

Scott: Actually that is not the case and Paul could probably address this maybe better than I.  But I know, there's a study by the Reason Foundation every year,Iowais the 12th worst state in rural interstate conditions.  We're the 7th worst state in urban interstate.  And we're the 4th state in rural.  So it's not a rural/urban issue by any means.

Wiser: But that is an argument you're going to have to make.  The folks in the municipal league haven't necessarily been on board with the fuel tax increase so far and some of these other groups.

Byrnes: And one thing I'd say too, Mike, is we've got to look at this as a whole package.  We can't split it into an urban versus rural type of setting.  I mean, we've got to approach this as Iowans.  This is our issue as Iowans.  It is an economic development tool.  You take a look what drives theIowaeconomy right now and really it is our agricultural community.  And a lot of those urban settings rely on that agricultural setting.  So you've got to really look at it from that economic development piece and what does it mean to have proper infrastructure in the state ofIowaand what does it do for us economically speaking? 

Henderson: But what is going to happen in an election year at the statehouse?  Are you going to find one legislator that is going to want to vote to raise taxes or fees?

Byrnes: I am glad you brought that up.  Do you know that the 1990 governor election, Governor Branstad won 60% I believe to 40%, it was the largest margin of victory that he has ever had as a governor and that came after he raised the fuel tax in 1989.  So his largest margin of victory came after he raised the fuel tax.  You look at President Reagan and what President Reagan did on the federal level.  He raised our federal fuel tax.  He went on to win again.  Legendary wise he has been known as one of the best presidents we've ever had.  So I think some of these people need to quit worrying about what organization or which group are they being obligated to and whether it is the Tea Party or Americans for Prosperity or the Iowans for Tax Relief, they've got to think about their constituents.  They've got to think about the people back home and the roads that they're using, if you look at this whole package, actually if you're fiscally conservative the fuel tax is probably one of the best things that we have.  It is a user fee. You're getting money from out of state drivers. Right now we have 25 counties in the state ofIowathat are bonding for roads at $163 million.  You're paying twice as much per mile as what you should be and by the time you pay off that bond you're going to have to replace your road again.  So, I mean, if you really want to be conservative and think about how we're using the taxpayer dollar, the fuel tax just really seems to be the best method.

Wiser: You had mentioned Americans for Prosperity and some of the taxpayer groups but there's also the Republican Party of Iowa has come out against this.  How does that effect the dynamics either in an election year or trying to work this through the legislature when one of the two major parties is adamantly against it?

Borg: Mr. Scott.

Scott: Well, the last time I checked the Republican Party of Iowa doesn't have a vote at the statehouse.  So some of the information they have put out in my opinion has been bogus.  You mentioned Ronald Reagan, back when the session was on they sent out a press release quoting Ronald Reagan on taxes.  But they failed to mention that Ronald Reagan had called for a tax increase, signed a gas tax increase and every politician that is there now or will be campaigning, the one thing they always keep talking about is jobs.  You know, studies will show for every dollar invested in infrastructure it rolls over about three times.  So if it is $200 million, a 10 cent gas tax, $600 million impact onIowa's economy.  I can't think of one thing that the legislature could do that would have a more immediate impact onIowa's economy than investment in infrastructure.

Henderson: I remember when democrats in the legislature pushed through an increase in the registration fee for minivans and there was a huge outcry and some democrats lost seats in the legislature.  How do you, as a group advocating for this, answer those concerns from legislators that they're going to be targeted if they vote for a gas tax increase?

Scott: As Representative Byrnes pointed out with the Governor in 1989, that came back and won, we actually sat down a few years ago and took a look at every legislator, not just the governor, but every legislator that had voted on those gas tax increases in the late '80s, there's not one that we could find that lost their election that voted for that.  Now, there were some people that moved from the House to the Senate and they lost there or whatever.  But we could not find one legislator that you could go back and look and go, that's what cost them this.

Borg: Mr. Trombino, I didn't quite follow your logic early on when Kay asked you about more fuel efficient vehicles and electric vehicles not paying their fair share for miles traveled.  How do you defend a fuel tax increase and not somehow building in the fact that these vehicles don't use as much fuel, if any at all?

Trombino: I advocate we have dealt with that.  We dealt with electric vehicles from a registration perspective this last legislative session.  And so we brought them in so that they're all paying the same registration fee that every other vehicle is.  The type of fuel that goes into a vehicle is going to significantly change.  We also dealt with how alternative fuels are actually taxed so that it is an equivalent level.  All of that was done during this last legislative session and that is what transportation funding is, it's sort of incrementally dealing with issues as they evolve on the system.

Borg: So the idea of putting a box in a car, futuristic but I think that's part of Kay's question, the idea of putting a black box in a car that records how many miles that vehicle traveled and on what roads is not in the current thinking?

Trombino: I don’t' see it -- sort of what I was trying to get to is that if you think of vehicle miles traveled right now, what Oregon is doing is they are proposing a tax, I don't know, 1.5 cents, 3 cents, whatever it is.  As vehicle miles traveled continue to decline you're really debating the same issue, it's just the different color trailer, I'll have to increase the cents per mile or the cents per gallon or a percentage base, the conversation is the same and the technology for tracking vehicle miles traveled right now is not there and it probably won't be there for many years.  So that is why we're coming back forward to say, look, let’s have a conversation, one, about the transportation system and what does everybody want out of it and how do we fund that system?  And broadening the set of issues that are out there, sort of think of it as a table, there was really one plate on the table and it is a gas tax.  We have added essentially eight or nine other plates, let's have a conversation then about what that system should look like and what is the best mechanism to fund it.

Henderson: Mr. Scott, it looked like you wanted to add something.

Scott: Oh, actually Paul picked up on it.  Even if we all agreed that the vehicle miles traveled is the way to go, we have critical needs that must be addressed now in the near future.  It's going to be years down the road before the technology is in place to have a VMT tax so that your car is able to talk to a pump or whatever.  And there's all kinds of other privacy issues that goes into that where the government will now know where your car is and where you're filling up.  So there's a number of other issues involved there.  But the point is, even if we get all that worked out, it's not going to be now, it's not going to be five years from now, it's going to be a number of years before the technology is there.  We keep hearing, we talk about, the politicians, now is not the right time.  Maybe it's because it is an election year.  In the year 2000, Governor Vilsack, yeah Governor Vilsack asked the legislature to suspend the gas tax because the price of fuel was too high.  It was $1.79.  In 2009, Governor Culver threatened to veto the gas tax because the price of fuel was too high.  It was $2.25.  Now, in 1989 when the Governor signed it, it was $1.12.  So I don’t' think we're going to get back to $1.12 any time soon.  But even that, at $1.12 the gas tax represented about 18% of the price of fuel.  Today even if you bump it up another dime it's only going to be about 10% of the price of fuel.  You're actually paying less in the tax in a percentage basis.

Henderson: Mr. Trombino, as the head of the DOT you face a variety of issues beyond taxation.  You have proposed rules which would regulate where traffic enforcement cameras can be placed on state roads, not on city streets, but on state roads. 

Scott: You're on your own with this one.

Henderson: Explain the rationale behind that and why you think your rules are the best approach.

Trombino: The rules are what I would call consistent process that has been around.  Any traffic engineering safety analysis, we do it, it's a common practice, you do it for traffic signals, access controls, stop signs, all the communities are well aware of it.  What we're advocating, this decision when it comes to automated traffic enforcement, they're identifying a safety issue on the system.  We should use a standard traffic engineering safety analysis to identify what the issue is and then figure out what the counter measures are.

Henderson: So critics say they are the opposite of safety, they cause wrecks.  What do you think?

Trombino: I think the information at best is mixed.  I think in some instances putting out what would be considered a safety counter measure and not really doing the correct analysis, it can have negative effects, that's true.  And in some cases you see that on the system, which is why we're advocating there should be good process, good traffic engineering safety analysis done first so that you can identify the right counter measure.

Henderson: Mr. Scott doesn't want to answer this.  But Mr. Byrnes, there have been efforts to ban cameras.  There have been efforts to restrict the amount that the ticket assessed to the motorist at the statehouse.  Discuss what you think legislators might do in this arena.

Byrnes: Well, you know, I mean, last session we had it come through the Transportation Committee and it didn't survive through the funnel week.  And I think it's one of those things, and Director Trombino hit on it, is there has got to be some consistency with this and right now it is kind of all over the board.  And you could get a traffic fine in this community but you go to this community and maybe it doubles.  I think we've got to have consistency in how this technology is utilized.  I have asked for, in the interim here, some data, some information about who owns these traffic cameras?  Is it for safety or is it for revenue?  Why do we have such a disparity when it comes to the fines?  Or maybe what are the criteria that initiates the fine?  I think we've got some work to do so that we can set good policy that is consistent.

Henderson: So will the House Transportation Committee pass a bill addressing this in 2014?

Byrnes: If I have the information in front of me that shows the consistency that we're looking for that is a possibility.

Borg: Mr. Trombino, in the proposals that we have here, is this for repairingIowa's infrastructure and roads and highways now or for also expanding?   Such as east of Tama, you have expanded Highway 30, 4 lane in most areas, but east of Tama is still 2 lane.  You have other sections like that in the state.

Trombino: There's a number of needs, as I would say, on the system such as those on 30 and other areas.  What we're advocating is that this will cover what we're calling critical infrastructure needs.  What we're trying to do is get our funding into a trajectory where we're growing, we're not decreasing.  And growth is the key ingredient because then we can address issues as they arise in the future.  But it is also we're trying to say, what is affordable?  Okay.  There is an affordability perspective in what we're trying to bring forward to say that we're going to have to make some hard choices.  The Transportation Commission knows that they're going to have to make some choices.  It's not going to fix every single issue out there and address every other concern because we're going to have to make some choices on what is the right segment, what is the right roadway, locals and the counties will have to make the same decisions.  And so that is the key ingredient that we think is important as we go forward.

Wiser: Director Trombino, the Amtrak extension from the Quad Cities, or proposed to the Quad Cities toIowa Cityand eventually toDes Moines, appears to be dead.  What is the Department of Transportation's long range plan for passenger rail or rail in general?

Trombino: Well, we have done -- we finished the study.  We have gone through the environmental document to run for the plans to run rail all the way toCouncil BluffsandOmaha.  We are in the process of finalizing preliminary engineering and NEPA analysis, an environmental study for the segment toIowa City.  That will give us better information about the corridor, actual dollars of very clearly what it should cost and then I think we can make an informed decision, not only ourselves but also with Illinois and the Federal Railroad Administration.  So we're going to have to make that decision here very shortly.

Henderson: Your agency also has registered an opposition to a bill that has been pending in the legislature that would let ATVs travel on some of the state's smaller roads.  Is that going -- is letting ATVs on the roads a good or a bad idea?

Borg: It's got to be a yes or a no, we're short on time.

Trombino: It's a no. Safety issue.  It's a tremendous safety issue from our perspective.  The vehicle is not ready.

Borg: Thank you.

Thank you.

Borg: Thanks for being with us.  We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend, same times, that will be 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation.  Iowa Banks know you want honest advice about how to best reach your financial goals whether it is financing an education, buying a new home, growing a business or funding retirement. Iowabanks,Iowavalues.  MyIowaBank.com. IowaCommunications Network.  The ICN is committed to the enhancements of distance learning and continues to meet the demands for greater access of high speed internet by educational users.  Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, forIowa, for ever.  Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org.  Alliant Energy, working to help small businesses control energy costs with energy efficient equipment and advice on smart energy use.  Information is available at alliantenergy.com.


Tags: Dave Scott gas taxes government House Transportation Committee Iowa Iowa Department of Transportation Iowa Good Roads Association Josh Byrnes news Paul Trombino III politics roads transportation vehicle taxes