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Iowa DOT Chief: The system Is Going To Shrink

(Charles Marohn)  Last week I spoke at a ULI event in Iowa along with Paul Trombino, the director of the Iowa Department of Transportation. During the Q&A, I was absolutely stunned by something the director said about the state’s highway system.

And so the reality is, the system is going to shrink.

Now I’m stunned not because of what was said — we’ve been saying the same thing here for years — but by who said it. While I’ve had a couple say this in private, talk of contraction is not something I’ve heard any other DOT director say in public. This is a big deal.

Here’s specifically what he said (I’m planning to release the audio, which isn’t great, later this week in a podcast):

I said the numbers before. 114,000 lane miles, 25,000 bridges, 4,000 miles of rail. I said this a lot in my conversation when we were talking about fuel tax increases. It’s not affordable. Nobody’s going to pay.

We are. We’re the ones. Look in the mirror. We’re not going to pay to rebuild that entire system.

And my personal belief is that the entire system is unneeded. And so the reality is, the system is going to shrink.

There’s nothing I have to do. Bridges close themselves. Roads deteriorate and go away. That’s what happens.

And reality is, for us, let’s not let the system degrade and then we’re left with sorta whatever’s left. Let’s try to make a conscious choice – it’s not going to be perfect, I would agree it’s going to be complex and messy – but let’s figure out which ones we really want to keep.

And quite honestly, it’s not everything that we have, which means some changes.

Director Trombino seems like a decent guy who, in a Midwestern fashion I appreciate, is speaking honestly with people. I made sure he was comfortable with me quoting him on this before we left the event last week and he made it clear that he was. That’s great because this is a game-changing acknowledgement that every state DOT director should be putting into the public realm.

And I’m going to call it an acknowledgement. Most DOT directors understand that we’ve overbuilt, that there will never be the money to maintain everything they are asked to maintain. (I would question the ones who don’t, their adherence to dogmatic politics or their competence.) I’ve not heard another DOT chief admit this problem publicly. They need to.

Here’s why: The day after the ULI event I spoke to an MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I shared the quote from Trombino with them. Their response: Wish we had know that before because we never would have recommended building more stuff.

Trombino’s assessment was both intelligent and pragmatic. Essentially, we can let things fall apart and be left with whatever survives or we can be more intentional and likely have a far better outcome. That’s a rational response, a real Strong Towns approach. We’re all in.

In 2009, Iowa had 114,347 highway miles. That is one mile for every 27 people. By comparison, Texas — the DOT I’ve long thought was the most hopelessly over-committed financially — has 87 people per mile. California is 226. So perhaps it is fitting that this acknowledgement first comes from Iowa.

Which state is going to be next? There are 49 more that need to take this first step. Let’s try and get them all to speak this honestly.