DES MOINES | Finding a fix, or fixes, for the state’s crumbling bridges and roads will monopolize transit talk and political dealing in Des Moines in 2014.
Few lawmakers dispute the Iowa Department of Transportation’s estimate of a $215 million annual backlog in critical infrastructure needs. But they haven’t mustered the votes to make a significant dent in it despite support from powerful lobbying groups ranging from the Iowa Farm Bureau and construction organizations to business and government groups.
Because a bump in the state’s per-gallon fuel tax is typically part of any serious proposed fix, and that’s been a rallying point for groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Iowans for Tax Relief and the Republican Party of Iowa to kill it.
After the last proposal fell apart in the closing days of the 2013 session, Gov. Terry Branstad directed IDOT Director Paul Trombino to come up with a list of alternatives. He did, but the items — including taxing the exempt red-dye fuel used in farm vehicles and increasing new automobile sales tax by one percentage point — have been met with mixed reactions.
None of the IDOT's alternatives could bring in enough money to eliminate the backlog by itself, so some lawmakers are thinking of combining one or more of the agency's more popular proposals with an increase. But any tax increase proposal also is hampered by the calendar.
“Generally speaking, politically, a tax hike or fee increase going into an election is not a good idea,” University of Northern Iowa Political Scientist Chris Larimer said. “However, in the case of increased funding for roads, this is something that was put on the public agenda by the bureaucracy (Iowa DOT), and for some time, which may provide some political cover for the governor and Legislature rather than a tax hike that originates in the executive or legislative branch.”
Still, there’s pressure for the governor and the Legislature to do something this session. The American Society of Civil Engineers deemed more than one in four Iowa bridges structurally deficient (21.2 percent) or functionally obsolete (5.2 percent) in its 2013 America’s Infrastructure Report Card.
“I think we’ll have a proposal this year. I think it’s inevitable,” said state Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and an outspoken proponent of a fuel tax increase, be it stand-alone or part of a package.
“By constantly pushing out the conversation between the two sessions, I think we’re keeping people talking about it,” Byrnes said. “More and more, the people I’m talking to, in community groups and at forums, are saying they see a need for it.”
State Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the governor has to send a signal to lawmakers if he wants any proposal to get through the Legislature.
“No one is going to vote for a tax increase or a fee increase if the governor is just going to turn around and veto it,” Bowman said. “Right now, (Branstad) seems content to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. We need to see some leadership from him.”
Branstad, for his part, hasn’t ruled anything out, his former spokesman Tim Albrecht said.
“Unlike his predecessor, the governor has not threatened to veto (a fuel tax hike),” Albrecht said.
CAMERAS, ATVS, RAILROADS
Lawmakers may push for new regulations on automated speed and red light cameras this year as they have done in the past few legislative sessions, although they’re less likely to try if the state adopts new regulations proposed by the IDOT this year.
“It kind of puts the issue to rest for a while if that happens,” Bowman said.
The rules, which have to be approved by a legislative panel in either January or February, require cities that want to place cameras on primary roads to get approval from the state and justify the use of the cameras each year.
The IDOT also is resisting efforts to allow all-terrain vehicles on county roads. State law allows farmers to operate ATVs on county roads, but a handful of counties allow ATV enthusiasts to also do so in their borders. Advocates want to expand those rules statewide — they tried most recently in 2013 — but lawmakers have been wary of doing so because of safety concerns.
Lawmakers also may decide whether the state will join the effort behind a cross-state Amtrak line that would stretch from Chicago to Omaha and include stops in the Quad-Cities, Iowa City and Des Moines.
New cost estimates released this month by IDOT peg the potential cost of the project at millions more than first planned. That is bad news for supporters because legislative leaders already were wary about spending money for the line.
One-time capital costs are now approximately $125 million for upgrading the existing 58 miles of track from the Quad-Cities to Iowa City with the state's share of the capital costs at $72 million. Previous estimates had the Iowa share at $21.8 million.
The IDOT estimates annual operating costs to Iowa at $600,000 per year, depending on negotiations with the Illinois DOT, but based on past discussions with local communities and their willingness to support passenger rail operating costs, the IDOT does not think an annual appropriation by the state Legislature would be needed.
In a letter to lawmakers, Trombino wrote that they may miss out on millions in federal support for the project if they dither past the winter.
“Iowa DOT supports expanding regional passenger rail service but also recognizes that the significant increase to capital costs are difficult to consider with our ongoing transportation funding needs,” he wrote. “The remaining federal funds are still available now; however, we anticipate the (Federal Railroad Administration) will withdraw remaining funds if no decision is made by this spring.”