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Column: After Floods, Iowa Should Focus On Improving Infrastructure

This story was written by Ryan Frederick, Iowa State Daily

Rain, rain, go away.

So begins the familiar children's rhyme. The rain has, at least for the time being, finally gone away here in Iowa, having left 17 dead, 3.3 million crop acres unrecoverable and 16 percent of the state inundated during its stay.

So begins the long road: cleanup and recovery, revival and renewal.

A great stride down that road may come in the next several weeks in the form of a special session of the Iowa Legislature. Gov. Chet Culver commented Monday that "in all likelihood" he would be calling the 82nd General Assembly back to Des Moines in the coming weeks.

What legislators could hope to accomplish, however, remains to be seen.

Fortuitously, the Legislature at least partially addressed these very circumstances back in April with the passage of HF 2564, a bill increasing the amount of funding available to individual disaster victims in counties exclusively under a state disaster declaration from $3,500 to $5,000. The same bill also widened the availability of those grants, which are intended to assist lower-income Iowans in exactly these circumstances. The new parameters take effect on July 1. Whether an additional appropriation will be necessary in order to fund this legislation under the current circumstances may weigh heavily on the agenda of any special session of the legislature.

A large part of the burden wrought by this inundation, however, has been borne by the governmental units least able to adequately cope with the magnitude of the deluge: counties and municipalities. In a year when county and municipal budgets have already worn thin from a long and harrowing winter of snow removal, salt, and sand, resources are sparse - particularly in rural areas whose infrastructure may not have been in the best condition to start with.

Indeed, Iowa is very much in need of infrastructure improvement across the board - not just for 14 miles of interstate through the heart of Des Moines. What is needed, simply, is a roads bill.

Whether in special session, or when the 84th General Assembly is seated in January, the Legislature needs to seriously consider an appropriation directly to the counties for the purpose of road maintenance, particularly in the area of bridge maintenance.

Indeed, bridges have long been an issue particular to rural parts of the state. Many bridges on secondary roads across the state were built as long ago as the 1920s, and federally-mandated inspections have consistently shown an alarming trend of deterioration attributable, ultimately, to lack of proper funding.

A report released by the non-profit Road Information Program in February of this year cited some staggering statistics. Among them: 21 percent of Iowa's bridges are structurally deficient.

The report goes on to say that Iowa "is falling behind in maintaining its bridges," and has "the fourth-highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the nation." These are all startling statistics, which the recent floodwaters have no doubt caused to float upward.

It's not just bridges, either. The Story County Engineer's Office, for instance, estimates that at least $200,000 will be needed to repair and re-gravel roads that were overtaken by water this month.

Iowa's infrastructure - particularly in rural areas - plays a critical role in the economic situation of much of the state, especially in its capacity as a farm-to-market conduit.

Without assistance from the State, many counties and municipalities may well be forced into budget cuts to come up with the funds for basic maintenance on infrastructural items.

The effects then ripple throughout the services of loca governments, affecting everything from elections to local law enforcement.

So, where to fund all this from?

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) and others believe the State should be prepared to borrow funds in order to pay for reconstruction efforts. Governor Culver has also indicated interest in tapping into the state's "rainy-day fund," which, according to the governor, now contains more money than at any other point.

If there was ever a "rainy day" in which to tap into that funding, this is probably it. Special sessions themselves are not cheap affairs, which makes the ability to quickly come to a consensus and render the necessary aid that much more pressing.

There is indeed a long road ahead of us - a long road before the Legislature can even think about meeting, given the necessity of gauging the full impact of this catastrophe, ascertaining the extent to which the federal government will render aid, and even reigniting the state government itself (the Department of Revenue and Finance is currently using the chambers of the House of Representatives for office space in lieu of their flooded offices, for instance).

We do indeed have a long road ahead of us. The challenges are many, the obstacles seemingly insurmountable.

"But", as Governor Culver stated last week, "we will rebuild Iowa, and we will be stronger at the end of the day."

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