Keep the wheels rolling -- a conversation with Iowa's DOT director

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: December 22 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:09 am in
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The Gazette Editorial Board

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Paul Trombino hasn’t been shy about his position on traffic cameras these days. The director of the Iowa Department of Transportation thinks some cities in Iowa are making decisions “based on revenue disguised as safety.”

During a wide-ranging conversation with The Gazette Editorial Board last week, Trombino insisted he’s not against traffic cameras per se. They can contribute to improving safety but there needs to be convincing evidence that they’re doing just exactly that, he said. And that’s one purpose of proposed new rules governing traffic cameras on state primary highways, rules that are one step away from implementation in 2014.

Trombino’s take is, of course, of interest in Cedar Rapids, where traffic cameras — speed and red light — have been in place for nearly four years. The controversial practice clearly is a revenue generator, especially the speed cameras on either end of the I-380 “S curve” segment through downtown — the vast majority of all camera revenue comes from speeding citations along that route. So far, the total is nearly $20 million. The city’s take goes toward police equipment and reducing local taxpayer cost for the police pension fund.

But statistics also show a dramatic effect on safety: accidents decreased 80 percent and fatalities by even more along that I-380 stretch, as the flow of traffic has slowed considerably. Cedar Rapids police also say the cameras free up more time for investigative work on crimes and other priorities.

We’ve been supportive of limited, targeted use of cameras as long as there’s proof of significant impact on safety. We think the I-380 cameras are a good example. And we also think their use should be essentially a local decision, even on state highways that travel through the city, because it’s local police who enforce traffic laws and respond to accidents.

STATE VS. LOCAL

That said, the DOT is certainly within its authority to regulate primary highways. Uniformity is the goal, Trombino said, and the proposal on the table does include reasonable requirements for things such as signage and placement of cameras.

What we question most is the section requiring cities to justify their use of the cameras. Its language seems vague and the list of requirements, including filing an extensive annual report, looks like it would do more to discourage use of cameras rather than help determine their ability to help. Iowa City, for example, has put its plans for cameras on hold, fearing the new regulations would be a roadblock too great. And a host of local police officials from this area have protested what they fear would be a heavy-handed approach by the state on their turf.

Trombino, talking with us, struck a “working together” tone and said cameras won’t immediately be removed in Cedar Rapids when, as expected, the rules are implemented in February. No guarantees down the road, of course.

While we were more encouraged by Trombino’s message, and certainly respect his grasp of broad transportation issues, we nonetheless urge him and the DOT not to usurp local decision-making power on what’s best for the community.

PASSENGER RAIL

There was mixed news when the conversation shifted to passenger rail expansion in Iowa, specifically, the proposed upgrade of rail that would link Iowa City to Chicago through the Quad Cities, with hopes of eventually extending service to Des Moines and Omaha/Council Bluffs.

More than two years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration awarded $230 million in funding to Iowa and Illinois toward a joint project establishing passenger rail service from Chicago to Iowa City. Iowa’s share was $87 million. But Iowa lawmakers have not committed any state money toward that project. In the meantime, Iowa’s share of the federal funding has dropped to $53 million. The FRA, with no commitment from Iowa, diverted $34 million of Iowa’s original share to Illinois for the Chicago to Quad Cities upgrade.

The cost for the Iowa portion of the route, meanwhile, has increased $35 million in three years to the latest estimate of $125 million. So the state now would have to spend $72 million for construction instead of about $20 million estimated in 2011.

Trombino pointed out the capital investment, while substantial, would be a one-time cost.

The better news is that a new DOT analysis on expected passenger revenue shows the annual operating subsidy that Iowa would have to provide would be about $600,000 instead of the $3 million originally projected. Because local communities already had committed to paying half the operating subsidy in order to realize expected benefits, Trombino said no state subsidy money would be needed after all. Which removes the biggest reason the governor and some legislators have cited in not supporting the project so far.

The bump in capital outlay is discouraging, yet we still think the passenger rail investment would be good for Eastern Iowa and the state in the long run. The upgrade for passenger rail also would benefit freight rail efficiency and help alleviate traffic congestion and reduce maintenance costs on primary highways, especially Interstate 80, where 35 percent of the vehicles are trucks. The DOT has projected frequent stop-and-go traffic conditions on much of the Iowa route by 2030 unless something is done. And upgrading rail is about one-third the cost of adding another highway lane each way.

There’s also, as Trombino mentioned, the benefit of providing more quality of life choices to Iowans, especially younger adults who increasingly want to forgo or reduce the expense of owning cars for convenient, affordable public transit options such as passenger rail. It could also enhance potential for commuter rail lines further connecting our corridor and region.

THE ROAD FUND

Trombino continues to believe there’s opportunity in regional passenger rail service for Iowa. But if state lawmakers don’t make a commitment by spring, the federal dollars for Iowa likely will further shrink or go away, he expects.

The No. 1 DOT priority remains finding a way to make up for an annual shortfall of $200 million needed for routine maintenance and vital improvements to the state’s roads and bridges. Iowa’s gas tax, a major revenue source for the road fund that is shared with local jurisdictions, hasn’t been increased in nearly 25 years. And with vehicles getting better mileage and miles driven dropping off in recent years, that tax is generating even less while road repair costs keep rising.

Still, within the next decade, raising the gas tax is still the best option to address the shortfall, Trombino said. Federal rules limit potential use of toll roads to “only three or four slots,” and toll roads mostly mitigate congestion, not raise much money for the overall road network.

Charging user fees based on miles driven “is years away” from being a viable option, he said.

And the federal government’s contribution to states’ road funding also isn’t as dependable these days, given the debt, budget deficit and partisan fighting problems that Congress has not resolved.

STEP UP, LEGISLATORS

Trombino and the DOT face many big challenges. State lawmakers need to step up and make the tough, if unpopular, call: Raise the gas tax.

And given that our state’s financial condition is strong overall, don’t give up on the passenger rail opportunity. Waiting indefinitely will only raise Iowa’s cost or waste an opportunity that won’t come again any time soon.

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