Ask anyone in government. A four-lane Highway 20 for western Iowa is right at the tip-top of the priority list for development.
In fact, it's been in the just-about-to-happen status. Since 1961.
And some things never change. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease and you are being heard," Iowa Department of Transportation Director Mark Wandro told Highway 20 expansion supporters recently. Yet he added he did not want to be "feeding false hopes to area communities" about when the project might actually happen.
Not exactly what that crowd was wanting to hear.
"We're always 'next in line' - always," laments Shirley Phillips, a longtime leader of the U.S. 20 Corridor Association, now based in Early. "It is frustrating. Legislators tell us that if we want funding for the highway, we should go to Washington and try to lobby Congress. The Iowa Department of Transportation tells us that if we want funding, we need to go to Washington. Yet I wonder if all the rest of the road projects that get done in this country are told that same thing."
Adding to the frustrations, the U.S. 20 Corridor Association was told at a recent meeting that federal money had been appropriated for use toward the Highway 20 program in the TEA-21 program a number of years ago, but that it did not get earmarked correctly and the state DOT never used it for Highway 20. According to the Association, the time allotment to use the funds had run out funds has run out and the dollars had to be returned to the feds.
"This is nothing new for us, we've been banging away at it for a long time," Phillips said. "We're not backing off. We are still talking about different things to do."
Finishing Highway 20 as a four-lane expressway with $400 million worth of work between Fort Dodge and Sioux City is considered vital to increasing economic development opportunities for western Iowa including the Storm Lake region. Local cities, counties, chambers of commerce and development groups have all supported the effort.
The reasons are obvious, says Phillips, also a Sac City municipal official. "Look at a map. There's a huge hole in northwest Iowa with no four-lane corridor at all. And while we know that most traffic flows east and west, there is only one four-lane in all of Iowa that runs all the way across the state east and west."
"Although we are located some 20 miles North of Highway 20, its completion as a four-lane would definitely be a boost to our economic development activities," said Chris Nolte, CEO of the Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce and industrial corporation.
"Recently in a discussion with a potential industry, Highway 20 came up and the likelihood of additional job creation after the facility would be located would be greatly enhanced with a four-lane in place. The market to which this Wisconsin-based company wishes to expand is from Omaha to Sioux Falls so a East-West corridor would certainly make a Buena Vista County location even more appealing. We wholeheartedly support the Highway 20 effort."
In its recent announcement of a new plant, Winnebago Industries chose Charles City over a northwest Iowa location due in large part to the proximity to the Avenue of the Saints in order to ship in parts and ship out product easily.
Other companies agree.
"In transportation, there are two crucial issues in controlling costs; the most direct route, and the safest route for our drivers," said G. Larry Owens, CEO of Smithway Motor Xpress, which is running 16 million miles a year on Iowa roads, many on Highway 20 in western Iowa. "Today we sacrifice the most direct route in many instances because it is not the safest route. We have to incur extra miles to travel Interstate 80 which is already overburdened, but provides a safer environment than the two lane roads."
The long-suffering Highway 20 activists admit to a bit of jealousy. They note that special appropriations have been made to complete the Martin Luther King Parkway in Des Moines, and funding has mysteriously materialized for a Highway 141 expansion in the past decade - projects that they said weren't even thought of when Highway 20's project was first being planned.
Nebraska is working on its Highway 35, Wisconsin on its 151, and Illinois on its part of the Highway 20 corridor, all of which connect to traffic on Iowa's Highway 20, still uncompleted after 41 years of planning and discussion.
For the moment, the U.S. 20 Corridor Association is promoting wider membership for its lobbying efforts, and asking businesses and leaders in the area to join a letter-writing campaign to the governor and Iowa's congressmen.
"Ask the DOT to explain the four-lane void across western Iowa. In other words, turn the heat up," added Daryl Watts, membership chairman for the group.
The association invites the public to its next meeting, Friday, April 12, 10 a.m. at The Center in Early.
Storm Lake is represented by Lorna Burnside and John B. Anderson in the association, and local senator Mary Lou Freeman has also been heavily involved.