Letter to the Editor: Take care of investment in Great River Road

To the Editor:
As leaders in the State of Iowa consider measures to improve and repair the state’s transportation infrastructure, multiple measures should be used to prioritize investments. Certainly, a pragmatic approach is necessary and routes which offer vehicular efficiency and access to markets for manufactured and agricultural goods are critical.
This metric, however, is not the only one which should be used as a litmus test for investments. Special roadways exist here in Iowa, these roadways—byways—connect communities and resources, offering visitors to our state an authentic Iowa experience and serving as significant sources of local pride. Chief among these byways is the 326-mile Iowa Great River Road traversing through the ten eastern counties adjacent the Mississippi River, designated by the Secretary of Transportation as one of the country’s most important driving corridors. When the State of Iowa sought designation of the Iowa Great River Road as a National Scenic Byway, it made a promise to maintain a high-quality driving experience. This promise is not currently being met.
Significant portions of the Iowa Great River Road are in embarrassing disrepair. The road is cracked, potholed, and uneven in numerous northern sections and while the scenic views are certainly memorable, so too are the jostles and jolts. In Burlington, the historic Cascade Bridge has been closed for several years, requiring Great River Road travelers to interrupt their experience along the Byway in search of an appropriate detour, potentially missing out on the treasure that is Crapo Park. Closures like these lead to confusion, frustration, and may risk the safety of visitors and locals. In southern Lee County, the road is threatened by washouts. Its closure could cut off the small and energetic community of Montrose from welcoming Byway travelers.
60% of the routes which comprise the Iowa Great River Road are under state jurisdiction and 40% under county and municipal jurisdiction. Counties and communities along the Iowa Great River Road are struggling to find the funds for repair, and while these road segments are in their local jurisdictions, the benefits of travel along the Iowa Great River Road extend to the entire state. Investing in the infrastructure of the Iowa Great River Road supports job creation, quality of life, and economic development.
According to the most recent research by Travel Iowa, the ten counties through which the Iowa Great River Road passes contribute nearly 20% of the state’s overall travel expenditures. Quality roads for travelers support increased tourism, thereby increasing the strength of the service industry as well as supporting skilled locals who can become entrepreneurs, utilizing their talent in manufacturing in more small-scale, “local-craft” enterprises. Byway travelers often choose to spend their money by seeking authentic experiences – bed and breakfasts, locally-owned restaurants featuring local fare, eclectic shops, interactive and engaging attractions.
The Iowa Mississippi River Parkway Commission, the managing organization for the Iowa Great River Road, is currently in the final stages of a multi-year planning effort to guide the future of this state and national treasure. Through this process, two rounds of well-attended stakeholder meetings have been held and over 800 visitors and residents surveyed. A consensus is clear—the Iowa Great River Road and the adjacent Mississippi River and connected communities are perhaps Iowa’s most untapped resource. Visitors and residents request increased resource protection and conservation; desire additional physical amenities like scenic overlooks and restrooms; seek expanded interpretive information about the history and culture of the region; and recognize the administrative necessities of such an endeavor. Without a quality roadway experience, any efforts in these areas will be in vain.
As Iowans engage in the important discussion about making smart choices about our roads and infrastructure, we must broaden the conversation beyond “efficient vehicle traffic” and “farm-to-market/manufacturing routes” and consider those roads—those byways—which set our state apart and connect the intrinsic qualities of history, culture, scenery and outdoor recreation that can make Iowa’s communities and employers competitive in a global economy. The major investment in the Iowa Great River Road has already been made. It is now time to fulfill our promise to take care of that investment.

John Goodmann
Chair, Iowa Mississippi River Parkway Commission