Saturday, April 12, 2008

Harkin Staff Seeks Road Input From Local Officials

Harkin Staff Seeks Road Input From Local Officials

“That just looks like cement,” said Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan, looking at what was left of a gravel road before a meeting with a member of Tom Harkin’s staff. The senator is sending staff to discuss infrastructure with local governments, with the idea of including money for bridges and roads in a new economic stimulus package.

“If you take the money” from the Bush Administration’s tax rebate plan “and buy appliances made in another country, that’s not stimulating our economy,” said Harkin staff assistant Tamara Milton.

The all-Democratic Johnson County Board of supervisors liked the idea, both from a political perspective (it went unsaid but it is, after all, an election year for Harkin) and to help the county meet growing road needs in a time of skyrocketing costs. “As far as a true stimulus package, investing money in infrastructure makes more sense,” said Supervisor Terrence Neuzil.

“I wore my walking shoes in case we were going out,” said staff assistant Tamara Milton, but even the hardened road professionals didn’t want to go out on the road unless they had to.

“We have to tell people, ‘we can’t get to your road, we’ll do more harm than good,’” said road maintenance supervisor Kevin Hackathorn. “People who live out on the gravel roads have had to go out of their way. They’re lucky just to get anywhere now. But the people on the dead end roads, you have to go in there and get them out.”

Just Thursday night, the county had to place weight restrictions on another bridge, said County Engineer Greg Parker. The bridge is located near a popular recreation area and serves a part of the county that lost another major bridge in the 1993 flood.

Rising costs, changing expectations, a changing farm economy and policy decisions have all contributed to the rural road crisis.

“Everything we do is related to fuel,” said Parker. “Every product we buy has increased, but we don’t change our level of service.” Parker said just this week he had taken bids on the county’s annual bituminous road resurfacing project, and the costs had doubled from six years ago.

“If you look at the cost of bridge replacement and roads increasing at 15 percent a year, while taxpayers are expecting a 3 to 4 percent increase in the cost of living, it’s hard to live within those means,” said Neuzil. “I’m sure the federal government, too, is seeing those limits of taxpayer pressure. But those costs are not decreasing.”

“The expectations from the traveling public are at an all-time high,” said Parker. “We have to design wider bridges for bike trails and for horse and buggy traffic. That’s good planning, but it’s increasing our cost.”

“We want to upgrade our dirt roads to gravel, and our gravel roads to chip seal,” said Sullivan, “but it’s hard to imagine doing it without the resources. It has to take a back seat.”

Neuzil said infrastructure improvements might need to be “the next big thing” like the Works Project Administration (WPA) of the 1930s.

“The huge farm equipment is what’s so rough on the roads,” said Supervisor Sally Stutsman, who lives on a family farm herself. “But that’s what farming’s all about these days.” You can’t go down a mud road to take corn to market. All the projects aren’t in the big urban areas.”

Semis are increasingly taking the place of wagons and pickups on rural roads. “We’re looking at one road with 80 semis over two weeks, after one of the worst winters we’ve had in ages,” said Parker.

The changing rural lifestyle means more cars, too. Parker said engineering standards of estimating traffic may change from eight vehicles per house per day to 10 or even 12.

“In the ag community, no one’s at home during the day anymore,” said Stutsman. “At least one person has to get to town to work.”

A particular sore spot for local officials is the decision by the state to transfer jurisdiction of several old state highways to local government. One of those roads is known locally as “old 218.” North of Iowa City it’s Highway 965, and south of town it’s called Oak Crest Hill Road. The road runs along the edge of the city of Hills, and mayor Russ Bailey said it’s stopping the town from growing. No new development means no new tax dollars for Hills.

“We can’t afford to annex,” said Bailey. “We’re in a great location. We have developers chomping at the bit, but we can’t afford it. If we don’t annex in, we can’t grow. But it’s half a million dollars to fix that road, and our whole city budget is $300,000.”

“Why didn’t the state fix the road before they gave it to us?” he asked. “It’s like giving somebody a free puppy, but we might not want to feed it. I don’t see how you can give away a road that’s worth nothing and then expect us to fix it”

The state did provide some funding -- $250,000 a year over ten years to Johnson County. “We’re spending four or five times that amount” on the transferred roads, said Parker.

“That totally changed our five year road plan,” said Sullivan. “We’re busy fixing the former state roads. There’s 5,000 cars a day on Highway 965. You can’t not fix it.”

The high pump price also means less money for roads, as people drive less, said Parker. But some folks have no choice. Farmers with contracts to deliver have to get their grain out.

“Alternate routes make a big difference with gas over $3 a gallon,” said Stutsman.

Meanwhile, the rest of the infrastructure crumbles. “You’re three months into your five year road plan, and there’s eight other things that need to be done,” said Bailey.

Other government services are slipping, too. Supervisor Pat Harney said the Postal Service is refusing to travel on some roads, and school districts are running buses on hard surfaced roads only.

Even safety is at risk. “Everyone in this county deserves a fire truck and an ambulance,” said Bailey, who operates a private ambulance service, “but it’s almost impossible to get to some of these places.”

But without more money for infrastructure, supervisors and engineers told Milton, even a wealthy growing community like Johnson County will have trouble even staying in place, let alone improving roads. When a new problem emerges, Neuzil said of the bridge that was weight-restricted Thursday night, “it just goes on the list.”

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