DOT commission listens to advocates of U.S. 61 expansion.
By CHRISTINIA CRIPPES
Actions spoke louder than words at the Iowa Department of Transportation Commission's meeting Tuesday.
Commission chairwoman Amy Reasner asked audience members supporting the U.S. 61 expansion project to stand for a moment.
As asked, at least two-thirds of about 50 attendees rose to endorse the highway expansion, and the commission learned in a matter of seconds the community's dedication to the project.
"All right; good visual for us," Reasner said.
Reasner said since the commission was not be voting on any requests, it would be unlikely to ask many questions or make many comments. She assured, however, they were listening.
Along with the visual, Jason Hutcheson of the Greater Burlington Partnership made a presentation on behalf of the Highway 61 Coalition and 17 people who spoke in favor of the project.
Hutcheson's mantra for the coalition was "We are this close. We want to finish well, and we want to finish what we started together."
He used statistics favoring the project's completion and stories of safety concerns from law enforcement and of business potential from employers.
The stats include:
* A rounded-down 35 miles left of roadway to complete in Iowa, with about five miles on the DOT's five-year program;
* Between 780 and 910 freight trucks and 5,900 to 6,800 cars each day travel the roadway north or south;
* 922 accidents, 11 fatalities and 446 injuries in Des Moines and Louisa counties on the two-lane highway between 2001 and 2011;
* Two to three hours or longer delays after an accident on the roadway, according to Des Moines County Sheriff Mike Johnstone; and
* $360 million invested since 1994 on improving U.S. 61.
Some of the people showing support for the project also shared personal concerns for safety issues.
Scott Grooms, who lives north of Burlington on Pfeiff Road, said he and his neighbors have experienced firsthand the fears of slowing and making a left turn to return home.
While he said the region is blessed to have mostly considerate drivers, some distracted drivers still come to a screeching halt and nearly rear-end the neighborhood's residents.
"Most of us that live off of this turn have had some very close calls on this corner," Grooms said. "I would like to see 61 finished in Des Moines County and Louisa County. It would be good for southeast Iowa and in turn good for Iowa."
A spokesman on behalf of Hawkeye Pedershaab Concrete in Mediapolis said the company knows firsthand the road's dangers after welcoming back this week an employee who had been on leave after an accident on U.S. 61. While the company believes expansion is important to the business, the spokesman said the biggest concern is for the 200 employees traveling to work each day.
Tammy Dean, a spokeswoman for American Ordnance, also spoke of concern for the safety of its 700 employees, contractors and others who work with the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant and travel on U.S. 61 either to get to work or to travel to the Rock Island Arsenal.
The formal presentation also featured video blurbs about the economic development potential from people on behalf of Siemens and Winegard Co.
"I think we've been very patient in southeast Iowa, and we need better highways to stimulate our economy there," said Randy Winegard, owner of the latter company.
Other businessmen spoke directly to the chamber in support of the expansion, including representatives from the Louisa Development Group, the Tri-State Summit and individual businessmen.
Matt Shinn from Two Rivers Bank and Trust spoke in support of the project on behalf of the Imagine campaign.
He said while the expansion project itself did not make the list of five priorities, it is critical for what the campaign hopes to achieve overall.
"It didn't end up being in our top five, but that's because it was something that was really out of our hands and out of our control, but in a lot of ways it lends itself to exactly what we're trying to complete with our Imagine campaign," Shinn said. "What we wanted to do is we wanted to leave a legacy of a vibrant and progressive community in Burlington and southeast Iowa."
He said while the expansion is beyond its control, it is in the hands of the DOT to see the corridor completed.
Roger Lindner of Merschman Fertilizer said there will soon be more potential for Iowa businesses along the Mississippi River once the expanded and improved Panama Canal opens.
"That economic drive is going to put so much more pressure on that two-lane highway north of here," Lindner said.
Hutcheson, as well as others during the meeting, came out in support of a gas tax increase in the state.
The coalition, and others who spoke on behalf of the U.S. 61 expansion, also made clear they are grateful for all that the Iowa DOT has done to improve transportation in southeast Iowa, including the Iowa 163 route to Des Moines and the bypass around Fort Madison.
Paul Nowicki, an assistant vice president at BNSF, also offered a presentation during Tuesday's meeting. He talked about the importance of rail, both for environmental reasons and its role in reducing freight traffic on roads, and gave a status update on the Burlington railroad bridge project.
He said the railroad bridge is expected to be completed in June with an opening ceremony to follow later in the month.