Weekend open thread: Lousy Iowa roads edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread.

A recent news report brought to my attention research published earlier this year on poor road and bridge conditions in Iowa. The full report by the national non-profit group TRIP is available here (pdf). Excerpts from the conclusions are after the jump. I knew that Iowa was one of the worst states for structurally deficient bridges, and that the Des Moines metro area is one of the country’s worst mid-sized communities on that metric. However, the estimated financial impact of bad roads and bridges on drivers surprised me. I also didn’t know that “poor road conditions are a factor in one-third of all traffic deaths in Iowa.”  

Background on TRIP, which produced the new study:

Founded in 1971, TRIP is a nonprofit organization that researches, evaluates and distributes economic and technical data on surface transportation issues.  TRIP promotes transportation policies that relieve traffic congestion, improve road and bridge conditions, improve air quality, make surface travel safer and enhance economic productivity.   TRIP is sponsored by insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, distributors and suppliers, businesses involved in highway and transit engineering and construction, labor unions, and organizations concerned with an efficient and safe surface transportation network.

Full report: Iowa Transportation by the Numbers: Meeting the State’s Need for Safe and Efficient Mobility.

Excerpt from March 27, 2013 press release:

More than two-fifths of Iowa’s major locally and state-maintained roads are in either poor or mediocre condition, the state has the third highest percentage of deficient bridges, and Iowa drivers experience growing congestion and delays. In addition to deteriorated roads and bridges, Iowa’s rural roads have a significantly higher traffic fatality rate than all other roads in the state. […]

Iowa roadways that lack some desirable safety features, have inadequate capacity to meet travel demands or have poor pavement conditions cost the state’s residents approximately $1.9 billion annually in the form of additional vehicle operating costs, the cost of lost time and wasted fuel due to traffic congestion and traffic crashes. Driving on deficient roads costs the average Des Moines area motorist $1,368 annually. […]

Forty-two percent of Iowa’s major locally and state-maintained roads and highways are in either poor or mediocre condition. Sixty percent of Des Moines-area major locally and state-maintained urban roads are in poor or mediocre condition […]

From 2007 to 2011, an average of 395 people were killed annual in Iowa traffic crashes, a total of 1,977 fatalities over the five year period.

The fatality rate on Iowa’s non-interstate rural roads is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than on all other roads (1.81 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel vs. 0.77).

Speaking to the Public News Service in late July,

Stu Anderson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation planning department, said what the state needs is an increase in the gas tax. “What our estimate is here in Iowa is that our public roadway system requires an additional $215 million of funding each and every year,” he said, “to address just those most critical needs that exist on the roadway system.”

The state’s gas tax was last adjusted in 1989, and efforts to raise the tax this past session fell flat. In Anderson’s opinion, the Legislature’s funding method of spending a lot one year and belt-tightening the next isn’t working.

“These individual years of high investment won’t be able to move the overall system conditions that much,” he said, “just because we have such a large infrastructure system in the state.”

Vehicle travel on Iowa highways has increased by 36 percent since 1990, he said, while the state’s population has grown only 11 percent. The report from TRIP found that poor road conditions are a factor in one-third of all traffic deaths in Iowa.

I don’t entirely agree with Anderson. Raising the gas tax alone won’t solve this problem. Iowa also needs to shift toward a “fix-it first” policy in road funding, so that the lion’s share of the money doesn’t go toward new road construction and new lanes on existing roads, but rather toward fixing the deficient roads and bridges.

  • Agreed about "fix it first."

    A lot of bridges and roads could have been fixed for the cost of making Highway 20 4-lanes across western Iowa. Where I live, the Chamber of Commerce in Carroll keeps pushing for making Highway 30 4 lanes to Carroll. There’s just not that much traffic in western Iowa.

    • that is a perfect example

      of new road and lane construction undermining our ability to maintain the infrastructure we already have. Iowa already leads the country in road miles per capita.

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