Iowa’s harsh winter is starting to influence the statehouse debate over how best to fix-up the state’s roads. Senator Steve Warnstadt, a Democrat from Sioux City, says as he drove from Sioux City to Des Moines today, he had to reduce his speed on portions of Interstate-29 because the roadway is in disrepair. "I think it graphically depicts what is happening," Warnstadt says. "It’s not just a concept that there are issues with our roads."
Department of Transportation officials say they’re running short of the money needed for road repair and construction, money that comes from the state gas tax. Democrat Governor Chet Culver has said now’s not the right time to raise the gas tax. One scenario under consideration would raise license fees on brand new vehicles and get rid of the low fee for pickup trucks that aren’t owned by a farmer or business. "I think if we make a good case of where this money’s going to be going, people will respect the tough decision that’s going to be made — however we end up funding it," Warnstadt says.
But Republicans like Senate G.O.P. leader Ron Wieck of Sioux City suggest cutting in other areas of the state budget and shifting the money to road construction. "We need to get some money in the hands of the D.O.T. this year," Wieck says. If there’s money left unspent when the state budget year ends June 30th, Wieck would back the idea of shifting that money to road construction and repair, too. "We need to do something," Wieck says. "…We need to be bold and it needs to be one of our priorities."
Republican leaders, like Iowa G.O.P. chairman Stewart Iverson, are giving mixed signals on the issue. "This is a classic example of the Democrats just kicking the can down the road," Iverson says. "D.O.T. says, ‘We need more money.’ Here’s the governor, (who) says, ‘Not going to increase the gas tax. We’ll increase every other tax under the sun but not something that goes to the roads.’" Yet Iverson says Republicans, in general, aren’t supporting the gas tax increase as he says it’s up to Democrats to solve the problem since Democrats control the legislature and the governor’s office. "However they want to solve it, that’s O.K., but get the job done," Iverson says. "That’s what they’re not doing. That’s what Iowans need is somebody who gets the job done."
Warnstadt, the Democrat from Sioux City who’s been involved in behind-the-scenes work to fix the problem, offers a different view. "We’ve passed bills out of both the House Transportation Committee and the Senate Transportation Committee and we’ve made great efforts to involve the Republicans in that process," Warnstadt says. "We’re not going to dictate on this. This is one where we want to involve everyone…and obviously we have done so already and we will continue to do that."
A Democrat and a Republican from the state Senate recently embarked on a joint "listening tour" to hear what Iowans think about the state’s road system and prospects for its repair and expansion.