An unexpected leave

Iowa DOT wants to abandon plan to maintain certain roads

December 07, 2015

We were expecting 9 in. of snow overnight, so I had to race home and pray my lawnmower would start.

It had been a while since the last cut. I was out on vacation and then went to Washington, D.C., on business (let’s call it an extended break), and the lawn needed one more treatment before the long winter. With losing an hour’s time in full effect, I was battling what was left of my Friday, and as soon as I slid off my riding mower I was riding my snow blower—cursing and kicking it until it finally coughed up a start. True to forecast, the next day, Nov. 21, we officially received 12 in. of fresh powder. 

Two days later the state of Iowa announced it was considering taking more vacations from maintaining certain roads—most of them low volume. Let’s call it a permanent break. According to Iowa Department of Transportation chief Paul Trombino, the network of roads and bridges is changing. Iowa has about 25,000 bridges and 114,000 lane-miles of roadway, and in time motorists, according to Trombino, will need less and less. Because more are transporting products nationally and internationally rather than locally, the belief is there will not be a need to fix every stretch of road within state lines. Trombino also does not think it’s an affordable approach.

“We have a robust system and the conversation that we are having is it’s all not affordable,” he said. “As I like to say, you or I, or all of us, we are not going to pay to reconstruct 114,000 lane-miles in the state, and, further, it’s actually not needed.”

So Iowa is seriously looking at taking a vacation approach, which means certain routes will not be touched at any time in the near, or distant, future. 

Linn County Engineer Steve Gannon would not mind being a vacation planner from time to time, because he thinks it is the right way to go. He said there are roads that have lost their sense of purpose, and as soon as they are overtaken with potholes and intruding vegetation the complaints start to come in. People want the pavement taken care of—either in the form of maintaining it or wiping it off the map. 

Dwight Hughes thought his was worth saving. The Hughes family has worked the land in Linn County since 1908. Local roads are pretty vital to a landscaping business, but in Iowa some will be scraped from the land in general.

The University of Iowa football team has an ANF sticker on its helmet. ANF is an acronym for America Needs Farmers. This circular yellow message has been on the lids since the 1980s. So how could a state that stands for farming shut down roads essential to the agriculture industry? It’s bad enough when those like Texas make the decision to reduce routes to gravel, but I’ll take a decent bed of rock over something the DOT believes is no longer worth its, or the taxpayers’, time and money. The critical function of roads is to bring goods to market. Even the major interstates play this role, and I see more getting widened to accommodate not only commerce but also the driving population, which will double in the next 20 years. 

Talking about a road that vanishes into a field is one thing, but if a farmer contributes thousands of dollars a year to the local economy, why is it OK to send the route he uses out to pasture? If you’re a producer in Iowa, you might want to go home tonight and hope this idea stalls. R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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