Matt Hinch will be Branstad's new chief of staff

Governor Terry Branstad announced yesterday that Matt Hinch will start work as his new chief of staff on October 14. A short bio of Hinch is in the press release I’ve posted after the jump. He has worked as a Congressional and campaign staffer to U.S. Representative Tom Latham, chief of staff to Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, and most recently as a lobbyist for the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

Hinch’s connections with the partnership made me wonder whether he might open the governor’s mind regarding proposed passenger rail service between Chicago and Omaha. Branstad has long opposed allocating state funds to match a federal grant for passenger rail. Like many business groups, the Greater Des Moines Partnership has supported state funding for the rail project as part of its legislative agenda. But probably I am raising false hopes; interviews Hinch gave last year suggest that rail wasn’t on his radar as an issue to press on behalf of the partnership. Moreover, Hinch’s former boss Latham has historically been hostile to funding alternate modes of transportation, including passenger rail. Hinch’s former boss Paulsen works for a trucking company and adamantly opposes state funding for passenger rail.

Branstad’s legal counsel Brenna Findley has served as interim chief of staff since Jeff Boeyink left last month to start work as a lobbyist. She’s more qualified to run the governor’s office than she is for her current position, so I thought she might become the next permanent chief of staff. Perhaps she is gearing up for a second bid to become Iowa’s attorney general. Running for statewide office is a full-time job.

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Iowa DOT to study Chicago to Omaha passenger rail

Iowa Department of Transportation officials have asked the Federal Railroad Administration to separate the $230 million federal grant intended to support passenger rail service from Chicago to Iowa City. Separating the funds would allow the Illinois Department of Transportation to move ahead with the Chicago to Moline (Quad Cities) portion of the rail line. Meanwhile, the Iowa DOT will study a potential passenger rail link all the way to Omaha, Nebraska.

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Branstad names Paul Trombino to run Department of Transportation

Governor Terry Branstad finally announced his choice to head the Iowa Department of Transportation today. Paul Trombino III has been serving as Bureau Director of Transit, Local Roads, Rails, and Harbors for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Before this year he was Region Operations Director of the Wisconsin DOT. After the jump I’ve posted the press release announcing Trombino’s appointment, which includes some details on his education and work experience. Trombino’s appointment is subject to Iowa Senate confirmation, but he is well qualified for the job and should not run into any trouble.

I hope that in his new position, Trombino will be able to target state resources toward repairing Iowa’s many deficient bridges and roads, as opposed to spending the lion’s share on new road construction.

I also hope he will help the governor see the benefits of expanding passenger rail in Iowa. Representing the Wisconsin DOT at a high-speed rail conference last year, Trombino depicted passenger rail as part of a “robust, diverse transportation system that meets the public need,” not something to be pursued instead of repairing state highways. (Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker rejected federal high-speed rail funding shortly after taking office this year.) Passenger rail was a goal of former Governor Chet Culver’s administration, but Branstad has made clear that roads will be his top concern, funded with a higher gas tax if necessary. Branstad didn’t include any passenger rail money in his draft budget, although he hasn’t definitively rejected federal funds allocated last year to extend a rail link from Chicago to Iowa City. Rail advocates have been working on funding plans that would require certain local communities to cover part of future passenger rail subsidies.

Branstad announced most of his picks to lead state departments in November and December, but he delayed choosing a head for the Iowa DOT. Instead, he asked Nancy Richardson to stay on through the 2011 legislative session. Governor Tom Vilsack originally named Richardson to that position, and she was one of the few Vilsack department heads that Culver left in place.

Branstad’s administration is nearly complete, but he has a few other significant personnel decisions to make. Earlier this month the Iowa Senate rejected his choice to lead the Department of Human Rights and one of his appointees to the State Judicial Nominating Commission. Branstad also needs to fill one more vacancy on the state Environmental Protection Commission. He withdrew one of his nominees to that body after the Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter pointed out the governor’s choices would leave the commission with too many Republican members.

UPDATE: Branstad nominated Nancy Couser for the last open spot on the Environmental Protection Commission. She is a cattle feeder from rural Nevada who also serves on the Iowa Beef Industry Council.  

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Register poll on Obama, gay marriage and more

The Des Moines Register continues to release results from its latest statewide poll. Selzer and Co surveyed 800 Iowa adults between February 13 and 16. Bleeding Heartland discussed the Register’s poll numbers on Governor Terry Branstad here.

Follow me after the jump to discuss President Barack Obama’s approval inching up in Iowa, slight growth in support for same-sex marriage rights, views on ways to close the state budget gap, and more.

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How well did Iowa use transportation stimulus money?

Last week the non-profit organization Smart Growth America released a report on "how successful states have been in creating jobs with their flexible $26.6 billion of transportation funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA)." The report demonstrates that "the states that created the most jobs were the ones that invested [stimulus funds] in public transportation projects and projects that maintained and repaired existing roads and bridges. The states that spent their [stimulus] funds predominantly building new roads and bridges created fewer jobs."

Table 2 of the full report (pdf file) ranks the states in terms of percentage of road spending allocated to “system preservation” (road and bridge repair) versus building new capacity. Here Iowa did well, spending 93 percent of the stimulus road money on repair work. Iowa ranked 12th in this category; seven states and Washington, DC spent 100 percent of their ARRA road funds on repair.

Iowa didn’t score as well (30th place) on Smart Growth America’s list of states by the percent of stimulus transportation funding spent on public transit or non-motorized projects. Just 3.5 percent of Iowa’s transportation stimulus money went to such projects. That’s not surprising; it has long been difficult to persuade Iowa policy-makers to invest more in passenger transit, even though we have an aging population, and many older Americans want alternatives to driving. A long-range transportation funding plan adopted in 2008 didn’t require a single extra dollar to be spent on public transit in Iowa. The Republican-controlled Iowa House has already voted to scrap funding that would help bring passenger rail service to Iowa City, and Governor Terry Branstad didn’t include passenger rail funding in his draft budget for the next two years.

After the jump I’ve posted excerpts from the full report, which explain why repair and transit projects create more jobs per dollar spent. A memo about the recent opinion poll findings references below can be downloaded here (pdf).

Smart Growth America’s latest study didn’t assess the rate at which states turned around their stimulus transportation funding to create jobs. A 2009 study by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee showed that Iowa was the second-best state in terms of allocating stimulus road funds quickly. At the end of July 2009, 85.1 percent of the $358 million Iowa received for highway and bridge projects was under contract, and 74.9 percent was for projects already underway. Those percentages were more than double the national average.  

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