Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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June 1, 2017

Sullivan’s Salvos     6/6/17

In this edition:

*Bridge Over I-80
*The Politics of Bridge Building
*City Growth in Johnson County
*Did You Know?

*Bridge Over I-80
         Johnson County got some bad news last week, as we were informed that the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) plans to eliminate the Lower West Branch Road bridge over I-80.

         A bit of background: I-80 was built over the course of a decade, with the Johnson County sections among the last to open in 1963. The intersections we had then are the same ones we have now, including the Herbert Hoover Highway (HHH) exit and the West Branch exit. (The West Branch exit is technically in Cedar County, just half a mile or so over the county line.)

         Building I-80 caused dozens of county roads to become dead ends. This was an inconvenience for neighbors, obviously, but probably a fair trade for the overall convenience of I-80. Still, some local roads needed to cross the Interstate. Emergency vehicles need to be able to reach residents without lengthy detours. Farmers need to get to town. You simply couldn’t close every local road.

So between those two exits (HHH and West Branch), the IDOT built bridges to allow Wapsi Avenue and Lower West Branch Road to cross I-80. These would be the roads that locals could use to get north and south.

And they have worked! For 54 years! HHH to Wapsi is about a mile and a half. Wapsi to Lower West Branch Road is about 2.5 miles. Lower West Branch to West Branch is another 1.5 miles. This arrangement has served the people of Johnson County well.

         Well, now IDOT says they are closing the Lower West Branch Road bridge. The existing bridge is not long enough to allow the Interstate to expand to six lanes through Johnson County. And building a longer bridge is money the state does not want to spend.

         I think this is disingenuous on the part of the IDOT. First of all, THEY are the group that put that bridge there in the first place! Why was it needed in 1963, when our population was 53,000 residents, and not in 2017, when the population is 153,000?

         Secondly, the IDOT is widening the Interstate because of the population growth! Doesn’t it make sense that these additional people will not require LESS ways to cross I-80?

         I am frustrated by this process, as are all my colleagues. We will do our best to fight to keep the bridge. But let’s be honest – state government has no love of Johnson County. If they can stick a thumb in our eye, they will do it. Even if it puts the health, safety, and welfare of rural residents at risk.

*The Politics of Bridge Building
         I find that there are often disconnects between reality and the political narratives we choose to embrace. The issue of rural bridges is a good example of this disconnect.

         First, a bit of background: every Iowa county has hundreds of miles of gravel roads. In addition, many of these roads have multiple bridges. Some are concrete, some are steel, and some are timber, but they all serve the same purpose. We replace a few of these bridges every year, and I can tell you the cost is pretty much always between $300-$600,000, depending upon the length.

         These bridges are lifelines for the people who live in the area. This is how farmers get to their fields. This is how farmers get to town. The rural economy functions best when these bridges are well maintained.

         In addition, there is a public safety factor. Fire trucks, ambulances, and Sheriff’s vehicles need to be able to access the residents of the area via a quick and direct route.

         On the other hand, the cost of these bridges adds up. Say we set aside $1.5 million for these bridges each year. That is the same cost as one brand new mile of paved road, or the rehabilitation of 3 miles of paved road.

Some of our paved roads see thousands of cars every day. Often these gravel roads have traffic counts as low as 25 cars per day. Needless to say, many people feel it is foolish to invest so much money in these bridges when the total traffic counts are so low.

I understand both sides of the argument. But time after time, I have come down on the side of the farmer. I have served as a Supervisor for 12 years. In that time, Johnson County has never permanently closed a bridge. I am extremely proud of that fact!

         But you won’t find a bunch of farmers singing my praises. In fact, you’ll find the exact opposite; farmers talking about how much they hate my work as a Supervisor.

         Here is where the disconnect comes in. Washington County – with more farms than Johnson County – has closed several of these bridges. The Washington County Board is made up 100% of conservative Republicans. But they have been closing bridges.

         Cedar County is the same way. The Cedar County Board is made up of 100% conservative Republicans, including the Chair of the Iowa Republican Party. But they have been closing bridges.

         The same disconnect exists in the case of the I-80 bridge described in the article above. The Branstad Administration runs the IDOT. They are all Republicans in charge. They could choose to serve our farmers and keep the Lower West Branch Road bridge. But instead, they are closing it.

         Like many areas of our politics today, the politics of bridge building are not what you might guess.

*City Growth in Johnson County
The U.S. Census Bureau has released 2016 population estimates, and Johnson County cities continue to boom. Tiffin saw a 54.4 percent population increase to 3,006 – the fastest growth in Iowa. North Liberty was the state's fifth fastest-growing city, growing 38 percent to 18,520.

Iowa City grew at 9.5 percent to 74,398 people. Coralville grew by 7.9 percent to 20,397. Solon grew 24.5 percent to 2,587; Hills 15% to 808, Shueyville 14% to 646, Lone Tree 7% to 1388, Swisher 5% to 924, and University Heights 3.6 % to 1,089.

The State Library of Iowa said that 243 Iowa cities grew, 652 shrank, and 49 cities stayed the same.

Yes! Summer is here!
Baseball and green plants.
Life is truly good.

*DID YOU KNOW?  Iowa leads the nation in most bridges in poor shape, according to a new report. The report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association says “of the 24,184 bridges in Iowa, 4,968, or 21%, are classified as structurally deficient”.

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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As always, feel free to contact me at 354-7199 or I look forward to serving you!



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