In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Today we highlight the proposed 40-mile widening of U.S. 20 in Iowa, which will cost many times as much as fixing all the state’s structurally deficient highway bridges.
In June 2015, the Iowa Transportation Commission, the public body that sets the state’s transportation priorities, voted to spend $286 million on widening 40 miles of U.S. 20 between Moville and Early from two to four lanes.
The section of U.S. 20 in Iowa that would be widened is shown in red. This single project will consume a significant chunk of the revenue collected from a statewide gas tax increase. Image: U.S. PIRG
The road passes through a rural area of northwest Iowa where population has barely changed since 2005, and isn’t expected to change through at least 2040. State transportation officials want to draw more truck traffic to and through the area, diverting some of the congestion now facing I-80 to U.S. 20 instead.
The state is saying the road needs to be built now to accommodate traffic that may develop more than 20 years into the future. Yet its projection of future traffic anticipates vehicle travel increases on that section of road far faster than recent data suggest. The existing two-lane rural highway can handle the traffic volume expected in 2039 in most locations, based on actual recent traffic growth.
Iowa’s highway design guidelines for two-lane rural arterials specify that they can handle more than 5,000 cars a day. If the 2011 through 2014 average growth rate were to remain stable through 2039, four of the nine relevant traffic counters on U.S. 20 would not see numbers exceeding 4,751 and a fifth would be at 5,154.
Iowa’s highway design guidelines are not as specific as other states, but according to Wisconsin’s highway design guidelines, the existing road could handle up to 8,700 cars a day. Only one of the nine traffic counters, east of Correctionville, would see daily traffic exceeding that level in 2039. To the extent that segment sees such a traffic increase, more localized solutions could be explored, rather than widening miles upon miles of highway two decades in advance.
The money slated to be spent on this unnecessary highway expansion could be used to restore Iowa’s existing roads, which are in bad shape and getting worse. In 2015, Iowa lawmakers passed an increased gas tax expected to raise $500 million between 2016 and 2020. The statement of legislative intent attached to the hike says, “It is the intent of the general assembly that 100 percent of the revenue produced as a result of the increase in the excise taxes… shall be used exclusively for critical road and bridge construction projects that significantly extend the life of such assets.”