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Road, trail projects compete for funds

IOWA CITY– Three area road improvement projects and one trail initiative may see funds if recommendations from the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County (MPOJC) are approved at a July 13 meeting.
The Transportation Technical Advisory Committee, made up of a variety of officials including mayors, city planners and civil engineers, met June 30 in Iowa City to review a number of transportation project proposals. The committee looked at Transportation Enhancement (TE) projects such as expanding parts of the county trail system and making improvements to the ex-Rock Island Railroad depot in downtown Iowa City. A $377,152 request for TE funds for a separated trail along Mehaffey Bridge Road was approved for recommendation to the board, but a request for $1,500,000 to reconstruct the road from the North Liberty city limits to the Iowa River (from Surface Transportation Program, or STP funds) was not.
STP funds were recommended by a 14-2 vote for projects in Coralville, Iowa City and North Liberty. Coralville requested $561,747 to widen Coral Ridge Avenue from Holiday Road to Oakdale Blvd. Plans are to go to four lanes with a center median and turn lane. The total project cost is estimated at $4,300,000.
Four million was recommended to be appropriated to the city of Iowa City for the $32 million reconstruction and elevation of flood-prone Dubuque Street from I-80 to Park Road.
Improvements could be made on Highway 965 at its intersection with Scales Bend Road if a recommendation for $1,125,000 is approved. City Planner Dean Wheatley said the $4,700,000 project would rebuild the highway from Penn Street north to Scales Bend Road, put in turn lanes, flatten out the super-elevated curve, and make improvements to the CRANDIC Railroad crossing. In addition, the ditches would be mostly removed with a storm sewer system installed instead. A 10-foot wide trail would also be constructed alongside 965.
It was also recommended to approve funding for the Pavement Management Program at $9,000 annually for three years, as well as the State Urban Design Standards fees at $8,000 annually for three years.
Money for these projects comes from federal tax dollars disbursed to the state and then funneled through the MPO. Municipalities make applications to the committee and the projects are then scored by MPO staff based on criteria such as if the funds are going to a new facility or to improve an existing one, how the project will improve traffic flow and the availability of local match dollars from the community. The MPO require a minimum match of 20 percent.
Not all projects meet the scoring criteria, but that does not mean the committee cannot consider a project for recommendation. In the case of the Rock Island Depot however, it failed consideration. Funds were requested to make improvements to the former passenger platform and other aspects of the historic structure in anticipation of Amtrak passenger rail service coming to Iowa City. However, since the state legislature closed out the session without approving funding for Amtrak, committee members were hesitant to make the recommendation.
Other projects under consideration but not meeting the scoring criteria included seven projects in Tiffin. Mayor Royce Phillips expressed his frustration with the MPO when none were recommended for funding.
“I’m just a little concerned,” Phillips said. He conceded his projects won’t score well based on the current criteria and lamented that “We have a number of projects that will never get high points.” He cited a $694,330 request for funds to go toward an $869,000 project to reconstruct Roberts Ferry Road from Goldfinch Drive to US Highway 6. Phillips said the citizens of Tiffin had ranked the project highest in a survey with improvements to Jasper Avenue coming in second. Tiffin had two projects on the list for consideration covering Jasper Avenue, one to reconstruct the road from Interstate 80 to 600 feet south of Clear Creek; the other to reconstruct the road from Highway 6 south to 600 feet south of Clear Creek. Cost estimates for both projects were $1,570,000 and $1,118,760 respectively, with $1,254,430 and $893,760 requested from the MPO.
Phillips explained his city engineer had “not done what I asked him to do,” and offered to amend the projects. His exasperation with the process was evident.
“The scoring needs to be changed drastically,” he said, admitting he does not follow it when looking for projects to apply for funding. Phillips left the meeting before an agenda item dealing with Jasper Avenue came up for discussion. That item, to consider a recommendation to add Jasper Avenue to the Federal Aid Highway System Map, was deferred.