Iowa investing transportation stimulus funds well so far

June 29 was exactly 120 days since the federal government released highway funds to the states as part of the economic stimulus bill (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Smart Growth America marked the occasion by releasing a review on how wisely states are spending the transportation money.

The 120-day mark is significant because it is the point by which states and territories are required to have obligated 50 percent of the flexible money granted them for transportation projects by the federal government. The money is meant to stimulate the economy, but also – in the language of the Act – “to invest in transportation, environmental protection, and other infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits.”

Iowa received about $358 million in federal highway stimulus funds, and I was pleased to read in Smart Growth America’s report (pdf file) that our state’s allocations compare favorably with those in most other states. Follow me after the jump for more details.  

Smart Growth America explains why a “fix-it first” approach to road funds makes economic sense:

While adding new roads or road capacity is often necessary, repair projects have been shown to provide greater benefits in the long run. Road and bridge repairs produce more jobs because more of the budget is typically devoted to salaries instead of equipment and land acquisition. Yet states continue to spend large amounts of money on new roads, though they cannot afford to maintain what they already have.

I’ve been concerned that Iowa would spend too much money this year on new road construction, which adds to future maintenance costs, instead of fixing the roads and bridges that need repair. Neither Iowa Department of Transportation director Nancy Richardson nor the state legislature have shown much interest in balanced transportation funding in the past. The fiscal year 2010-2014 Transportation Improvement Program approved earlier this month by the Iowa Transportation Commission includes more money for road widening than I would prefer.

That said, the policy-makers in charge of allocating Iowa’s stimulus highway funds have mostly spent the money on fixing what we have:

Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont committed to making their existing networks safer and more effective for their residents. Each of these states put 100% of the stimulus money they chose to spend on roads towards maintenance work.

Nevada, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Oklahoma all spent over 90% of their stimulus road budgets on repair as well.

That’s welcome news, because Table 1 in Smart Growth America’s report (p.16) shows that 59 percent of Iowa’s roads were not in “good” condition in 2007, and roads in “poor” condition imposed an estimated $383 in extra costs per Iowa driver. Furthermore, the same table shows that Iowa had 241 structurally deficient state and interstate bridges in 2008. These maintenance projects should take priority over wish lists for new roads.

Iowa has spent a significant proportion of stimulus funds on alternate forms of transportation:

The District of Columbia committed 41.5% of its funding toward public transportation and non-motorized projects, including facilities to make walking and biking safer and more convenient. Only 6 other states spent over 10% of their budgets on these types of projects: Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon, Iowa, Colorado, and Hawaii.

Table 2 on pages 23 and 24 of the report contains more details on the types of projects funded in all 50 states. Table 4 on page 28 shows state rankings; Iowa ranks 16th for proportion of road money spent on maintenance and 5th for proportion of stimulus funds spent on transit or other “non-motorized” transportation.

While there’s always room for improvement, it’s reassuring to know that Iowa has not squandered stimulus transportation funds allocated so far. Republicans trash federal government spending and state borrowing, but roads and bridges don’t repair themselves. Maintenance projects create jobs now and will benefit many communities in the future.

Prospects for passenger rail are also looking up in Iowa, partly because of the stimulus funds and partly because of other decisions the legislature and the Culver administration made this year. I’ll write more soon about passenger rail.

Speaking of infrastructure investments, the I-JOBS board approved eight flood recovery projects worth $45.5 million on Monday. Click the link for details. All of the projects are in Linn County except for $500,000 approved to help the city of Elkader build a new fire station.

I would like Iowa Republicans to explain how they would fund these flood recovery projects, since they reject the I-JOBS bonding program.

On that note, Bob Vander Plaats (who would like you to know that he is very well educated) showed over the weekend that he’s as clueless about infrastructure spending as he is about the separation of powers. Vander Plaats pandered to the crowd in Sac County by advocating the expansion of Highway 20 west of Fort Dodge. I wonder where he would find the money for that project, since he opposed federal spending (the stimulus), state borrowing (I-JOBS), and a proposed gas tax hike. How many roads and bridges would Vander Plaats leave in disrepair in order to widen Highway 20?

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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