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Federal highway funding uncertainty concerns Iowa

Transportation officials say complicates plans for this summer's road construction season

By William Petroski
The Des Moines Register

AMES, Iowa – State transportation officials are worried that the lack of a new federal highway spending package is hurting their ability to plan for the summer road construction season.

Thousands of construction jobs are at stake, along with dozens of road projects throughout Iowa. State officials said they must be cautious because there is no clear signal how much federal money will be provided.

"It's a roller-coaster ride. We don't know what is going to happen with any certainty," Iowa Department of Transportation Director Mark Wandro said.

President Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it goes much beyond Bush's $256 billion limit. GOP lawmakers have said the nation's crumbling infrastructure demands far more, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., set the target at $275 billion.

The U.S. Senate last month passed a six-year, $318 billion highway and transit bill. The issue is pending in the House.

Because of the uncertainty, Wandro said the Iowa Transportation Commission hasn't approved highway projects beyond June 30. The commission has no choice but to begin making plans next month for road construction during the 2005 state budget year, which begins July 1, he said.

The commission traditionally approves a new five-year plan each December. The old federal spending law, in effect for the past six years, expired last Sept. 30, but federal money has continued to arrive in Iowa under short-term extensions.

The state agency spends about $400 million annually on highway projects. About half comes from the federal government; the rest is state money.

State officials have provided Iowa's congressional delegation with a list of projects considered priorities that could use additional special federal money: Interstate Highway 235 in the Des Moines area; I-74 in Scott County, including the Mississippi River bridge in Davenport; I-29 in Sioux City; I-29/80 in Council Bluffs; and I-80 in the Iowa City area.

"What we need are timely appropriations and a timely reauthorization bill and preferably more money," Wandro said, "because the needs are greater today than they were in the past."

U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, an Iowa Democrat and member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he considers approval of a new highway bill a priority because of the potential to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Boswell said a House subcommittee is expected to deal with the highway bill next week. The full committee could consider it the following week, then hopefully the bill can be quickly approved by the full House and sent to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences, he said.

"We desperately need to have this six-year bill. I think people are starting to understand that," Boswell said.

Scott Newhard, director of public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, said the lack of a federal highway bill could create problems because weather limits the length of Iowa's construction season. Some projects might have to be postponed for a year, he said.

David Scott, executive director of the Iowa Good Roads Association, a highway lobby group, said supporters of road projects want a strong federal highway bill, but they don't want to send President Bush a bill that's so costly it would be vetoed.

Gerald Kennedy, assistant administrator of the Iowa Division of the Federal Highway Administration, said his agency faces bureaucratic headaches because of the situation. The agency works with state officials to carry out federal highway programs.

"The bottom line is that we are left in a real quagmire trying to figure out where to go," he said.