CEDAR RAPIDS — As sure a place as any to mark the tension between the big city and its suburbs is a spot of ground on the west side of C Avenue NE where Hy-Vee Food Stores intends to build a new store.
The spot sits on the south side of an ambitious $90 million street-building project that eventually calls for a four-lane Tower Terrace Road to run from Interstate 380 to Highway 13, about eight miles to the east.
The new road seemingly is an invitation for neighbors to cooperate. The proposed four-lane, two-lane sections — which are in place in some spots — will cut through Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha, Robins and Marion, as well as pieces of Linn County, pieces that one day surely will be annexed into the cities.
However, there is far from agreement on the benefits of the project.
Marion, Hiawatha and Robins are enthused about it; Cedar Rapids less so. And for good reason, officials from all four cities acknowledge. It will have minimal impact on Cedar Rapids, while helping surrounding communities become stronger.
This spot along the future Tower Terrace Road where the new Hy-Vee store is slated to be built also borders C Avenue NE — which is the vicinity of a second city-suburb battleground.
Paralleling C Avenue NE to the east is an annexation line on the map, put in place by Cedar Rapids and Marion in 1998, to allow both cities and the property owners in the vicinity to plan for the future. Annexation lines between cities are commonplace — others exist in the metro area.
However, the annexation-line agreement between Cedar Rapids and Marion along C Avenue NE lapsed in 2008, and the two cities have been at odds about it since.
This tension between city and suburb — over Tower Terrace Road and over the Cedar Rapids-Marion annexation line — is not simply a discussion point in backrooms at city halls. It has been playing out at recent monthly meetings of the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization board, a 23-member board with representatives from the metro-area jurisdictions.
Monica Vernon, a Cedar Rapids City Council member and this year’s chairwoman of the CMPO, said the metro planning group in the recent past has divided up what is now about $4 million a year in federal dollars for pieces of street projects in the jurisdictions in the metro area. The metro area cities and Linn County file project proposals, they’re ranked by a set of criteria and dollars are awarded.
In the last 18 months or so, a proposal to weight the CMPO board’s votes to provide a stronger voice to the suburbs managed to, as Vernon puts it, “awaken the sleeping giant,” by which she means Cedar Rapids.
Vernon says the Cedar Rapids contingent on the board insisted that the board’s representation continue to reflect the population of the jurisdictions in the metro area, a setup that gives the Cedar Rapids representatives 13 of 23 seats.
Ian Cullis, mayor of Robins, puts it this way: “We come here, ask for things … but Cedar Rapids has all the votes, all the say, the agenda.”
In his view, Lon Pluckhahn, Marion’s city manager, says the CMPO should support projects that are metro-area priorities. The CMPO should not simply be part of Cedar Rapids’ Community Development Department, he says.
A year ago, the Cedar Rapids majority on the CMPO board took a revolutionary step and decided to steer 80 percent of the board’s $4 million in annual funds in future years to trails and trail-related projects and away from road projects.
However, the decision to move much of the CMPO’s money to trails in the years ahead comes at a time when Marion, Hiawatha and Robins are looking to these annual funds to help bolster their jurisdictions’ own spending on the Tower Terrace Road project.
“I can see why they would be very interested (in the Tower Terrace Road project),” says Vernon of Cedar Rapids’ suburban neighbors. “It does run very close to the heart of Robins and Hiawatha, and north of Marion is a big-growth area for them. For us, it’s a little finger that sticks up north, and right now, is threatened by this lack of Marion’s re-signing of this (annexation) agreement (with Cedar Rapids).”
Important for Marion
Marion’s Pluckhahn says Vernon is correct: Tower Terrace Road “is a big deal for Marion in a lot of different ways,” he says.
Firstly, he says a completed Tower Terrace Road would provide Marion residents and those coming to and from Marion the only direct east-west access between Highway 13 and Interstate 380 other than County Home Road to the north.
As importantly, says Pluckhahn, Marion’s fast-paced residential growth has not had a sufficient amount of commercial development to accompany it. Tower Terrace Road in Marion, he says, is designed to provide that commercial development and accompanying property-tax base, he says.
On its own, Marion has completed one $3.4 million section of Tower Terrace Road and is set to complete a second section. But it needs $9.5 million to build a new bridge over Indian Creek to connect the two pieces. The city also would then like to get the road over to C Avenue NE, and ultimately to Interstate 380.
Pluckhahn rejects Cedar Rapids’ notion that it makes the best economic sense to devote most the $4 million or so that the CMPO has control of each year to trails. Trails have “limited” economic development potential compared to building roads to get sites ready for development, he says.
Hiawatha Mayor Tom Theis has been the driving force behind a key piece of the Tower Terrace Road idea, a new Interstate 380 interchange at Tower Terrace Road. In February, a consultant’s Interchange Justification Report — paid for by both the CMPO and Hiawatha — concluded that justification now exists for the construction of a new Interstate 380 interchange at Tower Terrace Road.
Theis will be speaking at the Iowa Transportation Commission’s meeting on Tuesday, April 9, in Coralville to ask them for guidance for the proposed interchange, which could cost $16 million to build. Part of the land around the proposed interchange is in Cedar Rapids, but the interchange becomes more attractive to Cedar Rapids if Edgewood Road NE is extended north from Blairs Ferry Road NE, which is another multimillion-dollar project.