Iowa DOT may delay road projects due to drop in gas tax collections

By: - May 13, 2020 3:44 pm

Construction on an Interstate 380 interchange. (Screen shot from Iowa DOT highway webcam)

Iowa may delay some road projects over the next five years because motorists are traveling less, reducing gas tax payments used for construction, a key transportation official said. 

Some projects had already been delayed a year by a sharp increase in construction costs last year, the state reported.

Stuart Anderson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s planning division, on Tuesday told the Iowa Transportation Commission that the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many off the road. Many trips are shorter than usual, he added.

That has meant both less gas taxes paid and lower revenue from new vehicle sales fees, Anderson added.

Another big wild card is the Sept. 30 expiration of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a main source of federal aid, which has yet to be replaced.

Anderson assessed the situation as he presented the draft five-year plan for road construction, formally the Transportation Improvement Program, to the commission.

“State road funding is anticipated to drop over the next several months due to travel and vehicle sales reductions as a result of COVID-19 impacts,” Anderson told the commission. “Without knowing the ultimate impacts on state road funding and potential mitigating factors, this draft program is based on pre-COVID-19 state funding forecasts. The commission may adjust the program when more is learned about state and federal funding impacts.”

In an interview, Anderson estimated money for roads will fall an estimated 25%, or $35 million a month, due to drops both in gas sales and new vehicle registration. Because to the lag in collecting those fees, those drops will become evident beginning in June, Anderson said. 

The state has more than 120 automatic traffic recorders that feed data to a DOT website. Anderson said the peak drop for Iowa highway traffic came the week of April 9, at 44%. It has been slowly growing, but still was down 33% for the week of May 7, compared with the same week in 2019. 

Vehicle miles traveled most likely saw a bigger drop than the traffic counts, because trips during the pandemic have tended to be shorter, Anderson said. That tends to be a better indicator of gas taxes, Anderson said, but specific data weren’t available. 

The state will get a better idea of how COVID-19 has affected DOT’s financial position when the June numbers come in, he added.

A comment period on the draft 2021-2026 Iowa Transportation Improvement Program is open. The Iowa Transportation Commission is expected to consider the plan June 9 at its meeting in Ames. 

A proposed $1.1 billion in bridge spending would include replacement of the Iowa 9 bridge over the Mississippi river in Lansing, the Interstate Highway 74 bridge in Bettendorf, and others.

The state reported that the number of Iowa bridges classified as “structurally deficient” dropped to 39 in 2019 from 256 in 2006.

Iowa’s draft plan for $3.6 billion in road construction over the next five years includes widening Interstate Highway 35 to six lanes in Polk and Story counties. Some of that work is underway. The widening of I-35 to six lanes from Northeast 36th Street in Ankeny to Iowa Highway 210 is expected to take two years, beginning in 2023.

The state also plans to rework the interchange at Interstate Highways 80 and 380 near Iowa City.

More than half, 55%, of the highway spending would be aimed at rural areas.

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