Hwy 20 setback stuns new leader

Thursday, June 10, 2004

DOT choosing winners and losers'

From her office on Main Street in Sac City, Shirley Phillips glances out the window and watches an occasional big rig rumble past. To her, it looks a lot like opportunity driving on by.

The newly-elected president of the U.S. 20 Corridor Association has just about run out of patience.

After more more than 40 years of trying to convince the government to complete the paving of Highway 20 as a superhighway through northwest Iowa, a 90-mile gap still taunts area communities, which are convinced that the lack of a good arterial road is costing them their best opportunity to score economic development.

Now, with a recently announced policy shift from construction to maintenance, the Iowa Department of Transportation is pushing back anticipated completion of 4-lane U.S. 20 across Iowa - again.

Phillips is seething at the latest setback, but she isn't quitting.

"This is not the first time the DOT has come at us with this. We are used to hearing setbacks," she told the Pilot-Tribune.

"This is very disappointing, but we aren't quitters. If we were, we would have quit long ago."

Phillips said that the state officials are claiming desperation for highway funding, but she said that her research from federal sources contradicts that claim.

"I don't know how the DOT can justify the efforts made for economic boosting in the rest of the state and leave this area out in the cold yet again," she said. "You can pick up a map and I'll show you where the state funding goes," east of Interstate 35.

There is still reason for optimism for Highway 20, Phillips feels - with traffic counts increasing significantly in areas where four-lane has been developed, new economic developments pouring into those communities, and another stretch of four-lane underway in Webster County.

She said traffic counts have increased as much as 17 percent near Webster City, while the DOT Director himself told the local advocates that just a 1 percent increase would be seen by the state as significant.

The new stretch of highway near Moorland will be a danger, she predicts, "dumping people off the four-lane and throwing them under the underpass," but when the DOT realizes that, it may be quicker to extend the four-lane work west, she said.

The 4-lane statewide proposal has languished for decades. Talk of the project started in the late '50s, with the state actually purchasing right of way in Ida County for the work in the 1960s. Since then, it has been a string of promises and excuses.

"Members of the U.S. 20 Corridor Association are disappointed with the Iowa DOT's lack of commitment to this project," Phillips said, suggesting that if the governor were to ask for a major road improvement in Des Moines, the state would find the funds relatively instantaneously.

In the 40-plus years the Highway 20 project has been left on the back burner, many other four-lane projects have been completed for the other parts of the state.

The Iowa Congressional delegation continues to push for Highway 20 development. "As Congressman Steve King says, this is the largest geographic area in the state that does not have a four-lane highway. We deserve a decent transportation system in western Iowa too.

Both King and Tom Latham have called for multi-million-dollar entitlements for Highway 20 in the pending transportation bill, and King has delivered $1.5 million for work in Woodbury, Ida and Sac counties, according to the Association.

At the U.S. 20 Corridor Association meeting in April, Latham remarked, "U.S. 20 isn't about concrete, it has a huge impact on the future of our state and it is critical for us to grow economically. All of the other contiguous states seem to be on board..."

So where are the state leaders on this issue? Phillips wonders.

"The DOT is, in effect, choosing economic winners and losers in this state," by slighting western Iowa transportation.

Safety and economics are the dual issues that keep the local association members at a task that long ago became frustrating and wrapped in red tape.

"Anybody that drives between Highway 71 and Moville has to recognize the need. The shoulders are terrible," Phillips said. "Along with the safety factor, this is crucial to our hopes for economic development. The communities were the new four-lane has been added say they have never seen such business activity in their towns."

She cites a list of major agribusinesses, tourism centers, major retailers, transportation-related companies and ethanol plants announced for new highway areas in central Iowa.

Members of the U.S. 20 Corridor Association, on which Storm Lake has been represented for years, are urging area individuals and businesses to take the issue upon themselves, and write to the DOT Commission at 500 Lincoln Way, Ames, to demand that the four-lane system finally be completed.

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Phillips said. "That's what it's going to take."

On the Net: www.4lane20.com

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