As lawmakers in Washington, D.C., debate a major infrastructure bill, tri-state government agencies have years of needs and projects, large and small, that need addressing.
These span from replacing locks and dams on the Mississippi River that were built before World War II to overlaying smaller rural bridges and paving roads.
Sam Shea, district manager of transportation projects for Iowa Department of Transportation, could have been speaking about more than just projects under his department’s purview when he said, “There is more need for projects than there is money to go around. Some of that will be what devils are in the details.”
Dubuque County Engineer Anthony Bardgett said a major investment in the area’s roadways is long overdue.
“We’ve needed a true (federal) infrastructure bill for many, many years, but we keep getting these continuing resolutions,” he said. “It does sound a little more positive now.”
Both political parties agree that broadband infrastructure must be included, too, in any infrastructure discussions.
But while there are ideas and projects in the pipeline, some area officials also said that decades of waiting has led to a lack of planning on big once-in-a-generation projects as could only be funded through a major influx of federal funds.
On and over the water
By all accounts, some of the most dire need in major infrastructure investments in the area is on the Mississippi River. In particular, officials look toward the locks and dams — three of which stand in the tri-state area.
“They’re approaching 100 years old,” said Tom Heinold, chief operations officer for the Rock Island District of the Army Corps of Engineers. “They were designed with a 50-year design life in the 1930s and built out in the 1930s and 1940s. Do the math. They’re not doing too well.”
That is not to say the Army Corps has not used the funding allocated by the federal government.
“We’ve done a lot to rehabilitate the lock chambers, but the dam gates and dam piers are mostly original constructions,” Heinold said. “We’ve replaced chains and pocket wheels to raise the gates there at Lock 11, but all of that concrete has been in the water for close to 90 years.”
Lock and Dam 11 at Dubuque most recently was rehabilitated in 2005.
“When we do a major maintenance like that, you expect to reset the reliability and safety of the lock for another 25 years,” Heinold said. “Time is ticking. Fifteen of those 25 years have already gone.”
A recent Army Corps report estimated the maintenance backlog on Mississippi River navigation systems, including locks and dams, at $1 billion. Of that, 40% was in the Rock Island District, which includes Locks and Dams 11 and 12.
In 2007, Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act, which created the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program. That program would create seven new, 1,200-foot locks, replacing the current 600-foot locks. That length is in response to modern towing standards and allow more barges through at a time.
“They’re not up near Dubuque, Iowa, but they would benefit points up the river by making the higher-tonnage locks on the lower river more efficient,” Heinold said.
But the same treatment is needed higher upstream as well, at McGregor, Dubuque and Bellevue, according to Heinold.
“It doesn’t matter how well you paint a piece of steel, you dump it in the water for 90 years and it’s going to see some significant rust and section loss,” he said. “Those things are going to have to be replaced. And we have hundreds of those things on the river. If we don’t start now, we might have a failure and a loss of a pool before we can get to the last one.”
The tri-state region also features several bridges that span the Mississippi River that also need to be considered.
A new span of Julien Dubuque Bridge in particular has been hoped for and planned for decades. It would essentially make the highway four lanes. The most recent cost estimate was $330 million.
“We had gone through all of the design work and the environmental policy stuff and we’d bought right-of-way,” Shea said. “But we could never get Illinois to prioritize it. Then, the City of Dubuque shifted priorities.”
At this point, he said he doubted the job would ever be done without direct congressional direction and that — due to the high cost — funding likely would have to come in one lump sum.
Fortuitously, Shea said the bridge was well constructed and maintenance has been inexpensive, as far as bridges go. That has pushed it down the list of every partner’s priorities.
“By the time we get around to the Julien Dubuque Bridge, it’s going to be 85 or 90 years old,” he said. “At that point, we’ll have to decide if we want to keep that and add or build a brand new bridge.”
The Dubuque-Wisconsin bridge similarly tops no priority lists, as it was built much more recently, opening in 1981. The Iowa DOT has planned a $10.6 milling and repaving of the bridge on U.S. 61/151 that spans the Peosta Channel in fiscal year 2024, leading directly to the larger bridge.
The Departments of Transportation for each of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin have five-year project plans.
Those projects earmarked for fiscal year 2022, which begins on July 1, and in some cases for the following fiscal year already have funding. But those in fiscal years 2023 to 2027 are just a list of needs at this point.
“So, from the DOT’s perspective, the easiest way for us to move forward with an increase in (federal) funding is just to advance projects,” Shea said. “So, we would look at 2023 and see which of those we could move forward.”
In Clayton, Delaware, Dubuque, Jackson and Jones counties, most of those projects are road resurfacing or bridge overlays.
“There is nothing sexy about an overlay, but they sure do make a difference,” Shea said. “We have a couple of bridge deck overlays over that way in 2024. Those are $366,000 and $380,000 apiece. The design work is very light. The construction is easy to get to bid-laying.”
Of the $50 million the Iowa DOT has estimated for project spending in Dubuque County in the next several years, just five come to more than $1 million apiece.
Bardgett said that accounts for fewer major projects than in recent memory. But he said he was not surprised that less major work in Dubuque County is prioritized in coming years than usual because much state focus has been on the county recently.
“I don’t know if they have a lot of major priorities Dubuque County’s way because they got the Southwest Arterial done,” he said.
Still, those five projects come to nearly $40 million of the estimated spending in the county. They include $19.8 million to finish up a reconstruction of Iowa 3 in Sageville planned for 2023, the $10 million bridge over the Peosta Channel and a $6.8 million bridge replacement over the North Fork of the Maquoketa River, scheduled for 2026.
The Iowa DOT has projects planned in surrounding counties estimated at $53.7 million — $27.3 million in Jackson County, $16.3 million in Delaware County, $5.6 million in Jones County and $4.5 million in Clayton County. The Jackson County slate is dominated by a $25 million bridge at Sabula. The Delaware County amount is mainly a $16 million repaving of 10 miles of Iowa 13 north of Manchester set for 2024.
The Wisconsin DOT has at least $79 million worth of projects in Crawford, Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties included on its five-year plan.
The Illinois DOT has $42.3 million in projects on its priority list for Jo Daviess County in the next five years. Those include replacing a bridge on U.S. 20/Illinois 84 over Smallpox Creek at Glen Hollow Road southeast of Galena. They also include a significant reconstruction and bridge replacement of four miles of U.S. 20 from Logemann Road to Rush Street in Stockton.
It is not going to be easy for the state legislators to decide on projects if a massive federal influx of dollars arrives, according to one local lawmaker.
“It’s sit down across the table and see where the needs are and how that money will be spent, where it’s not duplicated or something is not overlooked,” said Iowa Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, who serves on the Iowa Senate Transportation Committee. “Rural Iowa is so much different than urban Iowa. You get out to rural Iowa, and you see dilapidated bridges. And in Jackson County, their number of bridges compared to Polk County is just massive.”
Needs abound also at the county level, where local governments have many miles of their own to care for.
In Dubuque County, $44 million worth of projects on county roads are listed on a five-year plan, after fiscal year 2022.
Bardgett said one target shines brightest but is not on that list, because of its likely high price tag.
“The Highway 20 corridor between Peosta and Dubuque is something that needs to be looked at from the DOT’s perspective and the county’s perspective,” he said. “There are some real safety issues there.”
County officials have discussed for years ways to address safety issues at intersections along U.S. 20 just east of Peosta, such as the one with Thunder Hills Road, where drivers turn onto the highway from a stop.
But from the state’s perspective, that would largely be the county’s problem to solve.
“Typically access improvements like that, we’re going to ask the locals to take the lead on because it’s the local developments that increase the traffic,” Shea said. “Often, we’ll cost-share in some of that, but it depends on how much cost-share we need to do to get that done.”
Counties have made do with existing funding sources in recent years, in lieu of a big federal package. Since Bardgett took over as county engineer of both Dubuque and Delaware counties, he has prioritized replacing what county bridges need it. At this point, he said most have been done.
Across the river in Illinois, Jo Daviess County Highway Department Director Steve Keeffer said his department is “just trying to keep things running,” with smaller maintenance projects. He said the county needs funding in a big way, given the length of time since the last major federal investments.
“I wasn’t alive when most of this took place, but a lot of our county roads were improved starting just before World War II,” he said. “The last big thing here was in 1978, which was the Elizabeth-Scales Mound Road.”
But Keeffer said the one big road in his county that never even got that last investment was Blackjack Road.
“If I found a goose laying golden eggs, I would want to do something big with Blackjack,” he said. “It’s a tough one to do, just because of the topography. It’s a challenge. And at the time, no one was aware that Chestnut Mountain (Resort in Galena) was going to be there.”
Problems with planning
Area officials also said it will not be as simple as receiving federal money and spending it.
For instance, Shea said many extensive projects — the kind of generational builds the area has rarely seen — require a great deal of advanced work.
“Redoing the whole bridge on Dodge Street, for instance (over the middle fork of Catfish Creek), that takes a whole lot more engineering,” he said. “Our ability to advance that is going to be more difficult. If we could get a couple of years to spend it, we could maybe pull something like that off.”
And many area departments have not bothered to plan these kinds of major projects because decades of experience have taught them that funding those would be impossible.
“In Illinois rural counties, we’ve gotten to the point that we don’t have a lot of ambitious projects that we’re dreaming of taking on,” Keeffer said. “The things we can get ready quick are those resurfacing jobs. Those can be turned around quickly. If they said, ‘Jo Daviess County, here’s $5 million,’ I would hope they would give me at least five years.”
But as Shea said, many federal funding grants have historically come with timelines for projects to be bid out to contractors. He said that so far, these most recent plans seem to be no different.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, school-age children and their teachers in most places had to rethink the way they learned and taught. Instruction was driven online in many cases. But that proved to be a problem for students whose homes were too remote or were in places without access to high-speed internet.
So, following the approval of the American Rescue Plan and its cash distributions, governments at all levels began to plan for expansions to broadband.
Koelker steered a wide-ranging, $100 million bill through the Legislature aimed at that goal, which Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law this spring.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced in May that his state would use $100 million of its federal stimulus funding to broadband expansion.
The Grant County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to submit to U.S. Rep. Ron Kind for a $16 million project to build more radio towers and run 172 miles of fiber optic cables there.
The City of Dubuque launched a residential broadband survey to determine where needs for internet access are within its limits.
Each of these projects looks different and comes with different price tags. And Koelker said that based on her research this year, that is what should be expected.
“Broadband needs are so different in each county,” she said. “Some are going to need fiber. Others need more providers. The providers all have such a unique situation, too. They all need to work together regarding that. It can’t be the big versus the little. It is more complicated than people know.”
So, no matter what money — if any — comes the states’ ways from a federal infrastructure bill, distributing the funds is going to be just as complicated.
“It’s going to have to be a pool system, where in most areas it is a public-private partnership,” Koelker said.
She added that no matter how much money comes in, implementing a significant expansion is going to be hindered by workforce in broadband as well.
“We can’t get this up and running in a year,” Koelker said. “We don’t have the providers or the workforce to do that. We’re going to have to go outside the state for providers. Obviously, we’re going to want to use Iowa companies first, but our providers are saying they don’t have the workforce.”
Several area providers declined to comment or did not respond to requests for this story.