By The Gazette Editorial Board
So what’s it going to be, bike trails or Tower Terrace Road?
It’s tempting to frame the debate swirling around the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization that way: as a pitched battle between Cedar Rapids officials who favor trails and neighboring cities dreaming of Tower Terrace Road running from Highway 13 to a proposed interchange on Interstate 380.
And it’s true that these neighbors do have their nagging differences. But what’s not true, in our view, is that this is a my-way-or-the-highway choice for the CMPO. We think, with cooperation and communication, that both an ambitious effort to create a true trails system and a drive to provide a major east-west road connection for growing communities can be accomplished.
A regional wrestling match isn’t necessary.
“No, not immediately, I don’t think,” said Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn, whose community would benefit from Tower Terrace’s completion. “But I think, for the long term, we just need to show federal highway and Iowa DOT that there is a plan, and that there should be some CMPO involvement.”
“We’ll work through it,” said Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. “It’s not like this is the reason the cannon is facing Cedar Rapids out there in Marion.”
THE TRAILS PLAN
The CMPO is a group of cities in the metro area, along with Linn County, that have banded together to make plans and decisions on regional transportation policies and projects. That banding together makes the group eligible for federal transportation funds, based on population. The CMPO gets about $4 million annually.
Historically, those funds have been split up and used on various road projects in the area, providing relatively small sums to seed or assist much larger projects. But in 2010, Corbett floated the idea of using all or most of those dollars to actually complete plans for a regional bike trails system that have been sitting in a shelf with little progress.
His core argument was that although the MPO money isn’t enough to finish a big road project, it would be enough, over five years, to make a sizable dent in trails plans.
And that would appear to be consistent with a massive transportation needs study commissioned by the CMPO in 2010 called “Connections 2040.” The study concluded that although the region has trails, it has no trails system.
“The lack of an adequate bicycle network has a greater impact than simply not providing residents an opportunity to choose to ride a bicycle for commuting or for recreation. It also impacts the economic vitality of the region,” the 2040 report said.
“To retain and attract higher educated and higher salaried younger residents, the Corridor MPO region must be competitive with other jurisdictions. Cities that are retaining and attracting these residents
are those which provide
amenities for their residents. One of these amenities is a good multiuse trail and bicycle network, which can be used to travel to work and shop, exercise, improve the environment, or for recreation,” the study concluded.
In 2012, the CMPO voted to spend 80 percent of its federal dollars on trails for the next five years.
“I think we’re one of the first areas to do something of this magnitude. We think it’s going to make a significant impact in our trail and biking system over the next five years. I’m not ashamed of that vote at all,” Corbett said.
TIME FOR TOWER TERRACE
Corbett concedes that the decision didn’t sit well with some officials in neighboring cities, including those who wanted the money to be spent on Tower Terrace. But he notes that some of those communities are now seeking trails dollars. The first project will be completion of the CEMAR Trail, connecting downtown Marion with the core of Cedar Rapids.
We’ve supported Corbett’s trails effort, and continue to back it. And we don’t believe that a five-year commitment to building a valuable trails network will harm Tower Terrace expansion plans.
For one thing, it will be several months before a new study justifying the I-380 Tower Terrace interchange and an accompanying environmental impact study could be approved by federal highway officials. That approval is likely, making the project eligible for inclusion in the Iowa Department of Transportation Commission’s five-year road building plans. But it’s still uncertain when the commission will include the interchange in its plans, let alone when it would be funded and constructed.
Hopefully, the project will be added sooner than later. But it’s entirely possible that the CMPO can honor its short-term, five-year trail commitment and still provide long-term backing to the Tower Terrace project.
BUILD THE CASE
And we also believe that long-term commitment is appropriate. It’s an important regional transportation project, the sort of project that the CMPO was intended to support. We agree with Pluckhahn and others who believe such a regional commitment will be important in drawing state and federal funding.
“I think it builds the case,” Pluckhahn said. “We really anticipate that we’ll have most of Tower Terrace developed before we get around to doing the bridge (over Indian Creek). And a lot of those federal programs, they really like to be the last piece in.”
But we’re under no impression that such cooperation is simple. We understand that Cedar Rapids and Marion must settle a disputed annexation line in the vicinity of C Avenue where Tower Terrace would cross a narrow but important section of Cedar Rapids. And we urge them to set a boundary soon.
We also have supported Cedar Rapids’ preference for infill development over sprawl on its outskirts. But in this case, we think Cedar Rapids must temper its own preferences with the needs of its growing neighbors. It needs to tamp down its natural competitive instincts and consider the good of the region, especially in its dealings with the CMPO.
The ultimate goal should be a comprehensive transportation system that helps the region grow and thrive. We think both of these priorities fit that objective. And it will take a new level of cooperation and trust to get them done.
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