Iowa's Infrastructure: State Provides Many Transportation Options for Businesses

March 9, 2018 | Iowa's infrastructure: State provides many transportation options for businesses

Iowa’s infrastructure is unique in comparison with surrounding states and across the nation.

The state boasts two roadways in Interstate Highway 80 and Interstate Highway 35 that span the nation horizontally and vertically, respectively. The Mississippi River, which provides access to the Gulf of Mexico, makes up Iowa’s eastern border, and there are 3,851 miles of railways and airports in almost all 99 counties. All of these options make Iowa a hub for international exports and transportation.

A strong Iowa infrastructure makes Debi Durham’s job a whole lot easier. Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, plays a key role in recruiting manufacturers to Iowa to provide jobs, revenue and many other benefits to the state’s economy.

Infrastructure is usually the second question manufacturers and processors ask when looking at Iowa. The first is site selection, Durham said.

It makes it even easier when Durham has a great relationship with the Iowa Department of Transportation, which is in charge of improving and maintaining Iowa’s transportation infrastructure. The Iowa DOT is directed by Mark Lowe, and they both admit their close working relationship has been a big benefit to the current and future state of Iowa’s infrastructure.

“Most directors of economic development and directors of transportation do not have the close collaborative agreement that this organization has,” Durham said. “Where do we see the next growth opportunity of our state? What does it look like? We look at what kind of infrastructure needs are going to be needed and work with the DOT to model that in a way that it could be a priority.”

There are still things that could be done in the future to optimize and improve Iowa’s existing infrastructure channels. One of the biggest opportunities for improvement lies to the east, on the Mississippi River, with an aging and crumbling lock-and-dam system.


Just before President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, his transition team asked states for infrastructure priorities for the administration’s large infrastructure plan it wanted to propose in the future.

Three of Iowa’s top five requests had to do with the state’s water systems, but its No. 1 request was funding for the modernization of the lock-and-dam system in the Upper Mississippi. It centered on one lock and dam near St. Louis, but extended to all locks and dams in the Upper Mississippi.

“The lock-and-dam system is totally behind in maintenance,” Lowe said. “My grandfather worked on those lock and dams when he was a young man. Most of those were built in the 1930s, with a 50-year design life.”

There are 29 lock-and-dam setups in the Upper Mississippi River, and 11 — numbers 9-19 — touch the state of Iowa. Nine of those 11 were built in the 1930s. One of them, No. 19, which is the final one on the Iowa-Illinois border going southbound, was finished in 1913, before the start of World War I.

“They are 1930s structures that are functioning in a 21st-century transportation world,” Lowe said.

The aging river infrastructure causes a multitude of problems, the biggest being delays in shipping. The locks and dams are only built 600 feet across, which makes it tough for barges to get through. As Lowe put it, the locks and dams were built for 1930s vessels, not for the modern barges we see today. Some barges actually have to disassemble to get through the small corridors.

All of these delays build up as barges go farther downstream and meet higher river traffic pouring into the Mississippi River from other rivers.

“That creates delays, and delays cause congestions, and it creates lost time and lost money because you’re just sitting and waiting to get through,” Lowe said.

Repair time has been an issue, too. From 2013 to 2016, maintenance hours on Iowa locks and dams have increased by more than 8,000 hours annually, Lowe said.

If one of the lock and dams suffers a failure, it could mean about 500,000 additional pounds in freight coming through Iowa’s roadways, according to a recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The study said it would cause nearly $29 million of damage on paved roads.

The opportunity for these locks and dams to grow, if working efficiently, is huge. More than 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports go through the Mississippi River, and the Panama Canal went through an improvement project that finished in 2016. The Panama Canal helps U.S. exports traverse between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which allows easier access to China, one of Iowa’s biggest grain and soybean importers.

“The Panama Canal gives us the opportunity to get those products out internationally to reduce costs, but only if we don’t run into a bottleneck in this system,” Lowe said. “I think what’s happening is we’re under-realizing the opportunity the Panama Canal introduces because we’re still running into the bottleneck on the lock-and-dam system.”

The future of the lock-and-dam system may be brighter, if looking at Trump’s infrastructure proposal is any indication. On Feb. 12, the Trump administration rolled out a $1.5 trillion plan for the country’s infrastructure. One area of focus was inland waterways. The plan focuses on combining federal, state and local funds with private-sector dollars.

Whether or not an infrastructure bill gets passed through Congress in the near future, the recent highlighting of these aging lock-and-dam systems within the Trump administration is encouraging.

“I really think that because of Iowa, the conversation about the inland water system has really been profiled,” Durham said before the infrastructure plan was released. “We feel that we’ve been able to provide some really good information as to why we believe from an economic perspective that investing in our inland water system, and especially the Upper Mississippi, is vital to the national economy.”


In some ways, the roadways throughout Iowa would be in similar shape to the lock-and- dam system — aging and needing repair — if it weren’t for the state’s gas tax, which was enacted in 2015.

The tax put about $215 million annually into the state’s highway budget. That, paired with the $500 million authorized in 2015 through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act, has allowed Iowa to signicfiantly improve roads ahead of schedule throughout the state.

“[The roadways have] much improved in a lot of regards,” said Charese Yanney, a member of the Iowa Transportation Commission and managing partner of Guarantee Roofing and Siding in Sioux City. “We were spending a lot of money on Central Iowa and kind of neglecting the rest of the state in terms of stewardship.

“Stewardship is one of the most important things that the highway department, as com-missioners, we can do for our fellow citizens. Because if you don’t take care of your roadways, then they deteriorate quicker than you might think they do.”

Yanney went on to say the most pressing issue for Iowa’s roadways is bridges. The state ranks No. 1 in the nation with 4,968 structurally deficient bridges and No. 2 in terms of percentage. But Lowe said on primary roadways, with about 4,000 bridges statewide, only about 1 percent of those bridges are deemed structurally deficient.

“We’ve definitely made some headway with that,” Lowe said. “The key is your investment strategy going forward so you don’t backslide it.”

Lowe said going forward, the stewardship part of their budget should increase from 50 percent to 75 percent to efficiently maintain and improve roadways and bridges.

Yanney has had plenty of experience with transportation. Her company has about a dozen trucks in its fleet and travels in a 100-mile radius around Sioux City. While working with the Iowa Transportation Commission, she has seen first-hand what the future of trucking, and cars in general, may look like — autonomous vehicles.

“I think we’re going to have to do that sooner rather than later because vehicles are already being tested for driverless capability,” Yanney said. “I don’t know if I want to see that. But it’s coming.”

That will have an effect on long-term infrastructure planning, Lowe said. Since autonomous vehicles are projected to run closer together on roadways, more lanes on a highway may not be needed. For example, a projection out to 2045 for the I-80 corridor projects an expansion to six lanes, instead of a recommendation of eight or 10 lanes, which might be the case if not for driverless technology.

“We see the effect of autonomous vehicles coming into the system and the chance to get a higher volume or higher capacity use out of the smaller system,” Lowe said. “[Autonomous vehicles] will be able to run more vehicles in a closer range and more safely. We don’t have to build infrastructure as much as we would otherwise.”

Another effect is on the development of data and integrating that data into vehicles on the roadways. The Iowa DOT wants to create a traffic and road-reporting system that will make it easier for drivers on the road to make better driving decisions.

As autonomous vehicles become more prominent, Lowe said he hopes to have that data connected with cars to help those cars make smarter decisions. The ultimate goal is to eliminate delays and optimize the already built infrastructure. That could have a huge impact on transportation, as more trucks could deliver goods and services faster and more efficiently.

“We believe autonomous vehicles will increase safety, increase capacity and reduce congestion and delay,” Lowe said. “Our focus is not on embedding technology in the infrastructure or changing the nature of the roadways, but it is providing data about the roadways.”


Iowa’s railroads have been a point of pride for the state in recent years. Going forward, the focus is intersecting these railways with roadways in efficient ways.

“On the whole, our rail system is one of the higher performing systems and it’s a part of creating balance with our highway system,” Lowe said. “There is room for capacity improvement, there is room for reliability improvement. We continue to look at those opportunities where we are separating those points where we have interactions that might delay or might cause conflict for one mode or the other.”

Lowe used the new Council Bluffs expansion as a good example. The Council Bluffs Interstate System Improvement Program, a five-year, $1.04 billion renovation, aims to improve I-80 and Interstate Highway 29 in the area, and to achieve it, the Iowa DOT has to move and adjust railway systems to make sure they don’t intersect.

The e cient rail system is a product of the strong relationships between the state and the railroad organizations. Railroad organizations have been a huge help to the Iowa Economic De- velopment Authority in identifying certi ed and build-ready sites for potential manufacturers.

“Our relationship with the railroads has never been stronger, and they’re working with us in a much more proactive environment as we look at these certified sites and where we see this development going while being on the front end with them,” Durham said. “I’m really encouraged with our relationships with the railroads.”

The intersection of all of these infrastructure channels is important, as they give prospective manufacturers and processors options to move goods and services out of the state toward international destinations. Diversifying logistics is key in today’s businesses.

Iowa also offers another way to diversify transportation through air travel, a lesser-used but important option. The state has 108 airports that support more than 2,500 aircraft.

“Air service in our communities and how important that is to the success of our businesses is not to be lost,” Lowe said.

While these infrastructure channels are in various stages of stewardship and repair, it’s all of them working together that creates an efficient system for Iowa manufacturers and processors. Iowa’s wide array of options, working together, makes it a great spot for new and expanding businesses.

“All of this comes together in my mind because to have a fully functioning transportation system for our economy, it really needs multiple modes,” Lowe said. “So having those options creates efficiency, creates lower cost and you see them intersecting in multiple ways.”