Iowa Makes a Bold Admission: We Need Fewer Roads

The state’s DOT chief recently predicted the road system “is going to shrink.”

Image Jeff / Flickr
Jeff / Flickr

Per capita driving has peaked in America, and with that new normal comes the question of whether or not we should be spending limited transportation funding on building new roads. If nothing else the driving trends support the wisdom of a “fix-it-first” policy that focuses on highway maintenance over expansion.

Iowa DOT chief Paul Trombino recently took that logical conclusion one step further. During an Urban Land Institute talk, Trombino told the audience he expects the state’s overbuilt and unsustainable road network to “shrink,” according to Charles Marohn of Strong Towns. Iowans should figure out which roads “we really want to keep” and let the others “deteriorate and go away.”

The key quotes, via Marohn (our emphasis):

I said the numbers before. 114,000 lane miles, 25,000 bridges, 4,000 miles of rail. I said this a lot in my conversation when we were talking about fuel tax increases. It’s not affordable. Nobody’s going to pay.

We are. We’re the ones. Look in the mirror. We’re not going to pay to rebuild that entire system.

And my personal belief is that the entire system is unneeded. And so the reality is, the system is going to shrink.

Marohn characterizes the admission as a stunning one, and indeed it’s not everyday a U.S. transportation leader calls for fewer highways. But Trombino’s assessment is also spot on.

Iowa’s road network is already as big as it needs to be. Per capita driving peaked in the state in 2004 and has since been on the decline. Yet from 2009 to 2011 the state still spent 52 percent of its highway money on expansion. No surprise, then, that its share of roads in “good” condition fell from an already low 39 percent in 2008 to a frightful 21 percent by 2011. Iowa spends about $217 million a year on road repair, but Smart Growth America estimates that to get its roads into decent shape it needs to spend closer to $555 million a year over the next 20 years.

Iowa and Ohio are two states where vehicle mileage had peaked by 2004. (Via Timothy Garceau)

Trombino might be more candid about the problem than most officials, but others have recognized it. Last year the Washington State DOT made a severe adjustment to its vehicle mileage outlook in the coming decades based on a recognition that driving trends weren’t growing as they had in the past. Instead of expected continued gradual growth, WashDOT instead called for 0.4 percent growth through 2019 then a 0.4 percent decline through 2043.

Via Sightline

Cash-strapped metro areas have started to urge their state DOTs to make similar realizations about driving trends. In Ohio, where vehicle mileage also peaked around 2004, a number of metropolitan planning organizations have pushed for a new policy toward highways that focuses on maintenance over expansion, Streetblog’s Angie Schmitt reported in April. For some of these places, letting the road network shrink, as Iowa proposes, might be the wisest option.

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