CEDAR RAPIDS — Few highway projects have moved as slowly, so perhaps fittingly, the first piece of dirt digging on the long-delayed, $200-million Highway 100 extension project from Edgewood Road NE west and south to Highway 30 will move a pond to accommodate turtles.
Work on the pond project began last week, in mid-December, because the turtle species of most concern — the state-threatened Blanding’s turtle — has dug in now to hibernate in the muck at the bottom of the pond and so won’t be disturbed.
Come 2013, the mostly aquatic Blanding’s turtles that live in this little section of the world will get a chance to orientate themselves to the new and larger pond, an edge of which nearly touches the existing pond.
With the new pond in place, the old pond will be filled in to await the actual highway construction. The new pond will be about 27,900 square feet in size and 5.5 feet deep, compared to the 16,000 square feet of pond of shallower depth that it will replace.
Cathy Cutler, a planner in the Iowa Department of Transportation’s district office in Cedar Rapids, says the new eastbound lanes of the Highway 100 extension will skim the spot where the existing pond has been.
This pond-moving work is taking place on the front lines of what has been a lengthy environmental and political battle, which was precipitated by the highway project’s proximity to the 20-acre, state-sanctioned Rock Island Botanical Preserve, then complicated by the donation by developers of land to the county-managed state preserve to protect both their housing development and the state preserve from the highway.
An old railroad right of way cuts through here in a corridor that long had been defined as the route for the highway extension.
In the course of the environmental debate and federally mandated environmental assessments, the DOT agreed to move the highway’s alignment a bit to the north to better protect the state-sanctioned part of the preserve and to protect Northern panic grass and the endangered Byssus skipper butterfly on the preserve. (The butterfly hasn’t been spotted in the last couple of years.)
The assessments also dictated that the DOT take steps to lessen the highway’s impact on the Blanding’s turtles at and near the preserve and the state-threatened ornate box turtle near the highway alignment on the west side of the Cedar River. In the case of the box turtle, some 30 acres of crop land is being purchased to convert to prairie for the terrestrial box turtle.
Finally, in June 2012, the Iowa Transportation Commission returned the long-stalled project to the commission’s coveted five-year construction funding program, setting aside $108.7 million to build the first 3.8-million section from Edgewood Road NE to Covington Road — including a bridge across the Cedar River — and another $76.4 million to pay for right of way purchases, grading and structures for the second half of the project, taking it south to Highway 30. Money for road construction, lighting, traffic signs and erosion control on the project’s second phase is expected to come as new years are added to the commission’s five-year plan.
The DOT’s’ Cutler says right of way purchases, soil borings and other preconstruction work are now under way on the project, but she says moving the pond next to the state preserve is a first small step in the highway project’s construction.
Restoring the pond is not all that the DOT is doing for the Blanding’s. With data produced by transmitters placed on the turtles, consulting biologist Terry VanDeWalle says he has been able to determine the corridor that the turtles use as they make their way from Seeman’s Pond to Swan Pond, which sits on the north side of the new highway’s path. Thus, the DOT is building a 10-foot wide and 10-foot-high box culvert under the new highway along the path that the turtles have come to use. A wildlife fence also will work to funnel the turtles and other wildlife through the culvert and keep them off the highway.
VanDeWalle notes that the Blanding’s turtle is protected under the state’s endangered species law, so the DOT has not choice but to comply with state law and take steps to try to reduce the impact of the new highway on them.
This week, workers form Ricklefs Construction of Anamosa, which has won the $76,942 contract to reconstruct a new Seeman’s Pond next to the existing one, have erected a fence around the existing Seeman’s Pond to make sure, just in case, that no turtles in the pond get out and get hurt when digging for the new pond next door begins next week.
In 2013, the DOT will continue to buy up property in the right of way of the highway with bid-letting set for September on the bridge piece of the project, the DOTs Cutler says. The project is slated to be complete in 2019.
The half-mile Highway 100 extension will complete the Highway 100 project, which now runs from Highway 13 at Marion into Cedar Rapids, where the highway is called Collins Road NE, and west of Interstate 380 to Edgewood Road NE.
With construction plans now pushing ahead, Cedar Rapids attorney Wally Taylor is continuing to battle the Highway 100 extension with two lawsuits on behalf of the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter.
Taylor calls the DOT’s work to move the Seeman’s Pond to protect turtles “alleged mitigation.”“We have said all along that the mitigation will not be satisfactory,” Taylor says. “You can’t recreate nature. The turtles have a very significant homing instinct. They’re not going to go where you want them to go, they’re going to go where they want to go. This is just going to be a disaster.”