Iowa DOT director said transportation system will shrink

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LINN COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) – Iowa’s transportation system will shrink in the future.

That’s the assessment from the head of Iowa’s Department of Transportation, Paul Trombino. He said it’s not affordable for the state to maintain Iowa’s current transportation system, and it’s not needed.

According to the DOT, the state has nearly 25,000 bridges, 114,000 miles of roadway and more than 4,000 miles of rail.

Trombino said the system is slowly shrinking and he thinks it will shrink even more in the years to come as connectivity within the transportation system improves.

The state is putting money into a focused number of projects instead of trying to fix up the entire outdated system. Crews are extending and expanding busy roads, but those changes over time mean people stop using other pieces of the transportation system.

“We have a robust system and the conversation that we are having is it’s all not affordable. 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,” Trombino said.

According to Trombino, travel in Iowa has changed over the past fifty years. People aren’t just transporting products locally but nationally and internationally.

“My belief is the system will naturally shrink because we can be much more effective, much more cost effective in how we move people and products and naturally it actually takes less system, overall long-term,” Trombino said.

He said people naturally stop using certain pieces of the system.

“Which means, likely, they are already not being maintained and, likely, will shift away over time,” Trombino said.

Long-time Linn County Engineer Steve Gannon has seen this happen first-hand.

If you look now, it’s nearly impossible to find signs of some of the roads that no longer exist.

Linn County crews face this from time-to-time as they work on the 1,157 miles of roads in the county.

“As there’s less and less use, it overgrows. So, at some point, typically it’s the property owner adjacent – they become a nuisance for people. They are not really used for very much. They overgrow in trees. People then ask to have something done about it, either to fix it up or to get rid of the road. We have done - that’s call vacation when we get rid of the road,” Gannon said.

He said when Interstate 380 came through town, a lot changed.

“But there are roads that get cut off in that process - those roads stop being used,” Gannon said.

Sometimes unused roads become Class B roads, which means the county stops spending a lot of money on upkeep.

It posts signs warning people about the hazards. Gannon said the process can become and emotional one.

“The guy taking care of the system is going to think, there are roads I can winnow from the system. I could remove roads that just don’t serve anything but a single property. Those seem to be fairly straight forward vacations but not to the guy that lives on the end of it,” Gannon said.

Dwight Hughes took part in one of the vacation discussions years ago. He was fighting to keep the road near his home open.

“There’s about 1,000 acres contiguous to that, that the people are using to get the crops out besides all of the vehicular traffic from the neighborhood,” Hughes said.

Dwight’s family has lived out in Linn County for a long time with a landscape business that started in 1908. He just wants to make sure transportation leaders keep agriculture in mind.

“The real discussion will become that we need to look at it practically for the land owners. This is an agricultural state, we have an awful lot of agricultural product that comes off these lands and the roads that connect all those lands become critically important,” Hughes said.

It’s a critically important discussion that can be difficult to have and to implement.

“It’s easier for someone to look from the outside in than it is from the inside out,” Gannon said.

It’s a discussion, however, that Trombino said is needed for the future.

“My conversation is let’s figure out which are those critical roads that provide the best connectivity, let’s actually take them to a higher level performance,” Trombino said.

The director said he said he couldn’t predict how many miles of road Iowa would have in fifty years.

As for the recently approved increase in gas tax money, Trombino said that is still needed for improvements to roads.He said if someone asked for the bill to fix up every single piece of road, it would be a much bigger bill.

He also said Iowa should focus on investing in a system that provides the biggest benefit to the state. The gas tax is for improvements to roads where there are issues like, capacity and improvement problems.