Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests are Anson Marston Distinguished Professor and London Professor of Power Systems Engineering at Iowa State University Jim McCalley, and Stu Anderson, director of the Transportation Development Division of the Iowa Department of Transportation. They discuss the latest federal infrastructure bill negotiations and expectations and what it could mean for Iowa.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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An infrastructure deal in Washington is lifting hopes for new roads and bridges here in Iowa. We sit down with Iowa Transportation and Engineering experts on this infrastructure edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, August 6 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: This week in Washington, lawmakers continued to hammer out differences on infrastructure legislation. Back here in Iowa, leaders are primed to spend any new funds on everything from road and bridge repairs to expanding broadband. So what are the priorities and challenges for Iowa if an infrastructure bill is passed? To talk about it we've gathered a pair of Iowa experts. Jim McCalley is Power Systems Engineering Professor at Iowa State University and Stu Anderson is the Director of the Transportation Development Division at the Iowa DOT. Gentlemen, welcome to the show. It's good to have you with us.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Thanks for making time for us. Also joining us across the table, Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa and Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises.

Henderson: Stuart Anderson, we'll start with you. This infrastructure bill that David just referenced -- and a note to our viewers we're taping this on Friday morning, it may change by the time this airs -- what is in it for Iowa in terms of roads, bridges and airports?

Anderson: Yeah, so this bill, as you mentioned it is being debated as we speak. I think the Senate is hoping to vote on it yet this weekend or early next week. And it is a massive bill, 2,702 pages covering all manners of infrastructure. But definitely a large component of that is transportation related. About $550 billion of new spending in this bill. About half of that is for transportation. And Iowa would definitely see significant increases in formula funding for highways and public transit. We're roughly estimating about a 40% increase in federal investment in those modes, but also significant funding for aviation, hopefully our lock and dam system, it looks like there's some money for the Corps of Engineers in there as well. So really broad categories of transportation investment in this bill.

Henderson: Jim McCalley, what is your analysis of this bill as it stands right now?

McCalley: So, I'm primarily interested in the electric infrastructure part of it and of the 2,702 I think 550 of them are devoted to energy and of that about 90 to 100 pages are really focused on the grid and particularly resilience is a big issue. So I'm very sort of optimistic about the interest and the emphasis on transmission in particular. I think that is a real need for the state of Iowa and also for the nation itself.

Yepsen: Why do you say that that's a real interest to the state of Iowa, the resilience part of it?

McCalley: So, resilience is an important topic everywhere. We've seen recently in as a year ago almost exactly now where we had the derecho that caused a lot of interruptions and that was really a result of an extreme event. We saw something similar happen in Texas and of course we have been watching the wildfires in California. So, the ability of the electric infrastructure to be resilient to these kind of very, what used to be very rare events, and now may not be so rare is gaining in importance. And so we really like to see that additional funding. And it looks to me like that funding may come, from analysis of the bill, through the state as well as through very small rural communities. And so they're sort of trying to get at it from both directions.

Murphy: So, let's back out and ask this of each of you to take the big picture view. What is the current condition of -- Jim McCalley, we'll start with you -- what is the current condition of Iowa's electric grid? You mentioned other states that have had issues and we had issues with the derecho last year, Texas had issues earlier this year with theirs. What does Iowa's electric grid currently look like?

McCalley: So, there's sort of three sectors. Generation, transmission and distribution. The difference between transmission distribution is sort of the capacity and the voltage level, the transmission the large power lines that you see, distribution the ones running down the street. So my view is that the electric utility companies in the state of Iowa have really done a good job over the past 15, 20 years maintaining the infrastructure. You see ITC has invested many, many millions of dollars in their transmission grid. MidAmerican Energy of course has built out our wind energy infrastructure in a unique fashion unlike anyone in the country. Alliant Energy has also been investing heavily in their distribution. So I think it's good. But the point is that what we're seeing today is an increase in extreme events, events for which most of this kind of infrastructure was not really built to withstand.

Henderson: So is the answer burying some of these?

McCalley: Well, there's multiple answers. And burying power lines is part of the solution, but mainly at the lower voltage level. So I live in Ames, I was out of power during the derecho for a week, and if we would have had the lines running down the street underground that would have helped and that could be done. It probably can't be done economically at the transmission level. So undergrounding transmission is probably not as much of an option. There you really need to harden the structures in the lines themselves.

Murphy: Stu Anderson, give us the condition of Iowa's roads and bridges report.

Anderson: Yeah, so Iowa has a lot of roadway infrastructure, about 115,000 miles of roads and 24,000 bridges. It's a lot of infrastructure but it's important infrastructure to help provide mobility for Iowans and maybe more importantly help get our agricultural and manufacturing products to the rest of the country and the world. So that means we have a lot of infrastructure to maintain and improve. The bridge area is the one that gets the most discussion in Iowa. We have about 4,500 bridges in poor condition. That doesn't mean they're unsafe, but in many cases that means they are bridges that have load restrictions and eventually may have to be closed because of conditions. Most of those, the great majority of those are on the county road system. So this infrastructure bill does include dedicated bridge funding for states. So that will be a tremendous impact in our bridge issues. But we also have a lot of road needs, at the state level we have a lot of needs in investing in our pavements and also some Interstate corridors. The Interstate 380 corridor between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City has been a real priority corridor because of the huge demand with commuting traffic and safety issues. So we need to rehabilitate and widen that corridor.

Yepsen: National engineering groups have rated Iowa pretty mediocre grades, you mentioned the 4,000 bridges. Will this new infrastructure spending and state plans raise our grade nationally?

Anderson: Yeah, it should across the board. This is a real significant increase in revenue if this passes and is implemented. And so, again, it will help roads and bridges. But it's not just roads and bridges that have needs in Iowa. Our transit system, about half of our public transit fleet in the state exceeds federal useful life standards. So those will provide funding to help replace some vehicles. We have airport needs, of course here in Des Moines there is a real need to replace and modernize the terminal at Des Moines.

Yepsen: Excuse me, I thought you had to raise the passenger fee in order to get that done.

Anderson: Well, that's one option.

Yepsen: Will this infrastructure bill eliminate the need to raise passenger fees?

Anderson: Well, it's a little hard to say right now. But what this bill does is it includes a $5 billion discretionary program at the federal level for terminal projects. So that could be another option that the Des Moines Airport could consider.

Henderson: Stu Anderson, in 2015 the Iowa legislature and the Governor improved an increase in Iowa's gas tax. How has that impacted roads and bridges in Iowa?

Anderson: Yeah, that has been tremendously impactful in a positive way. That fuel tax increase that took effect March 1st of 2015 generally raised the gas tax about 10 cents per gallon. And so that provided over $200 million a year for DOT, city and county improvements. And it has actually allowed everybody to make some progress on the bridge condition challenges and road improvements. Just on the state system alone our Iowa Transportation Commission has prioritized investing in pavements and bridges and has made real progress to the point now where because of the gas tax and other prioritization of funding we now just have 32 poor condition bridges on the state system. So it has been very impactful.

Murphy: How about the future of the gas tax? Cars are being more fuel efficient. Electric cars don't use gas at all. How long, how sustainable is the gas tax as a major revenue source for the state? And what are the other options moving forward looking ahead 5, 10, 15 years down the road? 

Anderson: Yeah, so I would make two comments on that. First is, the legislature, again, was very proactive in initially directing the DOT to do some assessment about what the impact of more electric vehicles in the fleet would have on the state road use tax fund and directed us to make some recommendations, which we did. And the legislature in 2019 implemented some user fees for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, not in a way to generate more revenue but to be revenue neutral so that they're paying an equivalent amount to what they would pay as gasoline powered vehicles. So that was really important.

Yepsen: Do we need to raise those fees and gas taxes?

Anderson: Well, it's a little premature to say that. Of course we need to see what happens with this infrastructure bill and how that addresses our needs. Also, the legislature has directed the DOT to do a study every five years looking at what our road needs are in the state and the ability of existing revenue streams to meet that and that next study is due this calendar year. So in there we'll have a better assessment of what the impact of the infrastructure bill is and what our funding shortfall is.

Yepsen: Well, but nevertheless, this federal infrastructure bill could delay the need for Iowa to raise gas tax or electrical fees, right?

Anderson: It's very possible because in our assessment we look at all the revenue streams that come in and what the needs are.

Yepsen: Jim McCalley, are electric vehicles going to pay their fair share?

McCalley: Great question and I drive, I have two of them in my family and pluggable and so we feel like it was an economically attractive decision to have made that purchase. But overall I think that 20 years from now we will see the economic benefits of an electrified transportation system and those benefits are directly related of course to the need to green our electric generation side. And one of the major motivations for wind and solar, of course, are de-carbonization. That is what gives a lot of attention to that effort. But it's also economic. It's the economic generation resource today.

Murphy: There is an infrastructure question there too because if we're going to have more electric vehicles, President Biden set the goal of half of the fleet by 2035, we need more charging stations right?

McCalley: That's right. Yeah, so certainly this is an additional load on the electric grid and we need to be prepared to handle that as it comes forward.

Anderson: And this infrastructure bill includes a new formula program through USDOT with dedicated funding for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The early numbers show that it would mean perhaps $10 million a year over 5 years for that program.

Yepsen: Jim McCalley, a quick question. We had a couple of guests on this program last week I think talking about ethanol. What is this electric vehicles, what the President is talking about, going to do to the ethanol industry in our state? Put them out of business?

McCalley: Well, I'm not sure that there's been really good analysis on my side about the implications for ethanol, certainly it's a fuel mixed derivative so there could be, I'm probably not well-positioned to comment on that.

Henderson: Back to the question about charging stations. Do they need to be positioned every -- how am I going to drive from Des Moines to Denver if there aren't enough charging stations?

McCalley: So it is certainly an evolution. I think we're going to have to see, we're going to have to wait on the charging stations to be built then at a level that enables the avoidance of the problem that you're suggesting.

Henderson: So is this a chicken and an egg? What comes first? Are people going to be reluctant to buy electrical vehicles if they can't drive them as far as they're able to drive a vehicle that has liquid fuel?

McCalley: Right. So you can also do both and this is a very attractive way to avoid that problem. And I think the interim time period that we're in right now we'll probably see a lot of purchase of vehicles that are fueled by gasoline, petroleum based as well as electricity.

Yepsen: Who should pay for all this, these charging stations? Is that the Iowa DOT who should make that service available at rest stops and other places? Or is this something we ought to look to the private sector to do?

Anderson: Well, I think it will be a mix. Certainly this infrastructure bill would provide significant federal funds to support that. The idea is that that would probably up to 80% federal funding support and then the 20% match we'd envision. Again, it's very preliminary but that would come from the private sector. At this point we don't have state funds available that would go to support that directly.

Yepsen: So, Kay is not going to be able to pull over at the rest stop and plug in?

Anderson: Well, right now there is a federal prohibition on putting charging infrastructure at rest areas and charging electricity for them.

Murphy: And Stu, to pin a bow on the, circle back to the funding question. If the President's goal of half of the fleet being electric cars by '35 what does that do to revenue in the state if we were to get there where half of the vehicles aren't using as?

Anderson: Well, we really feel that the action by the legislature in 2019 has addressed that issue. So we really feel that the user fees in place will address that. And the other piece of the infrastructure bill is the plan to look at a national pilot study for alternative user fees like a mileage based user fee system. So that is kind of a longer-term discussion.

Murphy: Jim McCalley, I don't know how well this fits in your expertise, but another area of the infrastructure bill is the lock and dam system and that is something I know from covering the news in this state for a while has been talked about for a long time. And we'll ask you both about this. But do you have any thoughts on the needs on the lock and dam system and how that upkeep is essential to our state?

McCalley: I'm mainly focused on the electric grid and that kind of energy and infrastructure and I may pass that question.

Yepsen: So has hydro power got any future in Iowa? It's a pretty flat state.

McCalley: Yeah, so there is a bit of hydro in Iowa but there is not a significant opportunity there for building out. But there is north of us, particularly in Canada, and so there's a lot of opportunity there to build out Canadian hydro and bring it in. But here lies another need for transmission.

Anderson: Yeah, I'm glad you asked about the lock and dam system. That has been a state of Iowa priority for quite a few years. Our lock and dam system is probably an underappreciated, vitally important mode of transportation to ship Iowa grain to the rest of the world. It really provides Iowa an advantage in lower transportation costs. I believe about 60% of our grain exports travel down the Mississippi River to the export market. Just the locks and dams along the Iowa border require about a billion of investment just to make up with past deferred maintenance and do rehabilitation work, not even talking about expansion. And any single point failure of a lock and dam shuts down the entire river. So that is vitally important and we're hopeful some money out of this infrastructure bill goes towards that.

Henderson: Jim McCalley, let's shift to solar. There are some big installations going on in the Grinnell area and some other areas of the state. What role will solar play in providing electricity in Iowa?

McCalley: So there's certainly a great opportunity there in two different ways. One is, as you say it what we refer to as the utility scale sized solar plant, which typically would connect at the higher voltage level transmission level. The other is on our roofs. And so many people are interested in putting solar panels on the roof. We call that distributed energy resources or DER. But there's a lot of interest in distributed energy resources and for good reason. On the other hand, on a percentage basis we're probably going to see most of our solar energy coming from utility scale plants in the future. It's just more economic to do that.

Henderson: So what role does the tax incentive play in the development of the solar industry? Those have gone away at the state level.

McCalley: Certainly a large role, particularly at the distributed level. It's really not an economically wise choice to put solar panels on your roof without some level of subsidy. It's more economically attractive to pay the 10 cents per kilowatt hour that is typically in MidAmerican Energy regions.

Yepsen: Do we have the infrastructure that we need to take advantage of solar and wind power? I'm told that we need special wires to get solar and wind energy from out of the Heartland into Chicago and other places where it's going to be used. Is there anything in this legislation to help do something about that? Is that a problem?

McCalley: It is a huge problem. Today our wind infrastructure in Iowa is, as we all know, very, very large and growing. But it has not grown as much as it could have and would have had the transmission system had more capacity. So this is not necessarily the fault of anyone, it's just the function of where we are in terms of our build out on transmission. The infrastructure bill has put about $12 billion into facilitating the construction of new transmission in the United States. Now, that ends up being something on the order of maybe 1,500 miles of line, of high voltage transmission lines. We have about 200,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines in the United States today. So it's not huge but it's significant.

Yepsen: And people just love having them in their back yard, don't they?

Murphy: Stu Anderson, Interstate 80 is obviously a main artery through our state and critical for commercial travel. What is the future of I-80? Does DOT see that that will need to be expanded to 6 lanes at some point in the future? Is 4 lanes going to be enough? What does the future of I-80 look like?

Anderson: Yeah, we have done planning studies looking at I-80 and as you mentioned I-80 is a major freight corridor for the whole country and we see tremendous volume of semi trucks, in some cases up to 40% of the traffic is all semi trucks. So yes, there are some areas that will require 6 lane improvements, primarily in Eastern Iowa initially. The Commission has programmed some funding to do some of that work east of Iowa City. Continuing all the way to Davenport and the Illinois River we'll be looking at making those improvements eventually and probably working its way to Des Moines. Western Iowa the traffic is a little lower so that will take some time. But definitely I-80 and even I-35 in some stretches will need some major improvements.

Murphy: And what is the time range on something like that? That seems like such a huge project and obviously you're still just kind of in the very earliest of stages of thinking about something like that. What is a timeframe on something like that?

Anderson: We'd probably be looking at 20 years or so to make significant improvements from Iowa City to Davenport. Of course a little bit of that depends on funding. But yes, it does take time to make those large improvements.

Yepsen: What about Davenport to Council Bluffs?

Anderson: The entire length?

Yepsen: 6-lanes, yeah.

Anderson: Maybe, probably definitely less so in Western Iowa. I think a little bit of that is going to depend on what happens with technology. As we see automated vehicles, we have done some analysis where we think that could alleviate some of those capacity needs as you have vehicles that can drive closer together, maybe a little narrower lanes. So that might really have some influence here in the next 20 years as well.

Henderson: So, what happens when you're building, as you are at that I-80, 380 interchange, are you planning for that already because that thing seems huge? Are you planning for I-80 to be 6 lanes there?

Anderson: Absolutely.

Henderson: And the new bridges on I-80 too?

Anderson: Absolutely, yes, particularly the bridges. Bridges have a very long lifespan so any bridge work we're doing on I-80 we're preparing for the future. And the I-80, I-380 interchanges is a really good example of an important project because of the freight movement on that corridor. The existing interchange just had really challenges with weaving movements that caused problems for semi trucks. So that was a really important project. But yes, that is built to handle wider pavements in the future.

Henderson: You mentioned freight. Freight flying into Iowa. Are the state's airports equipped to deal with this demand for people to have a package delivered in a cardboard box to their front door?

Anderson: Cargo definitely is an important component of the aviation system, although definitely much less than what we see on the highway system just because of the cost. But certain types of cargo really is important to hand move by the aviation system and we primarily see that at the Des Moines and the Eastern Iowa Airport over in Cedar Rapids. Probably the bigger challenge for our airports, particularly our commercial service airports, are the passenger demands. With COVID those went way down. We saw passenger counts in our airports down 95%. But in June they were back up to about 80% of the pre-COVID levels.

Yepsen: Jim McCalley, am I going to be able to drive an electric car, whether it's 4-lane or 6-lane, from Davenport to Council Bluffs in the near future without stopping?

McCalley: Certainly, yeah. That's here today. The cost of the purchase necessary to make that happen is a little high, but costs are coming down. The Tesla would make that drive no problem.

Yepsen: Surveys show, excuse me Kay, surveys show one of the big impediments to people buying electric vehicles is they worry about getting caught out on the Interstate without a place to charge. Is that a big problem?

McCalley: Certainly, kind of going back to our earlier discussion, that is where you really need to use, have the ability to use both gasoline and electrification, electrified transportation.

Henderson: We're done.

Yepsen: We're done. We're out of time? Okay. Thank you both for being with us today, appreciate your time.

Anderson: Thank you.

Yepsen: Good discussion.

McCalley: Thank you.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press as we explore issues of racial justice and equality in Iowa. Joining us are Betty Andrews, President of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and Justyn Lewis, a Community Activist and Founder of Des Moines Selma. That is Iowa Press next week at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. And thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa