Paving the way for a wider I-380

Corridor residents had mixed reactions to a proposal to widen I-380 to six lanes at an informational meeting held in North Liberty by the Iowa Department of Transportation on Nov. 6. PHOTO KATHARINE CARLON

By Katharine Carlon

Iowa Department of Transportation officials have seen the future and it is jam-packed – with cars and trucks.

Projecting that the number of vehicles traveling the Corridor’s most prominent connecting artery will double over the next two decades, the DOT this month gave the public its first look at a plan to widen roughly 15 miles of Interstate 380 to six lanes between Cedar Rapids and North Liberty.

The superhighway could give future development up and down the route a shot in the arm, help better knit the region’s two urban centers together and improve the economic fortunes of local industries from trucking to aviation. But most of all, according to transportation planner Cathy Cutler, it would provide relief to the growing number of commuters, commercial vehicles and air travelers already overloading the roadway daily, as well as the businesses who depend on them.

“Traffic has gone up to more than 50,000 cars a day on 380,” said Ms. Cutler, adding that number is projected to increase to 90,000 by 2040. “We are beginning to see breakdowns in reliability and safety, and we are approaching saturation for a four-lane interstate.”

With both Johnson and Linn counties among the state’s fastest-growing, Ms. Cutler said, “the time to prepare for the future is now.”

The project, expected to cost about $220 million, including construction and the purchase of right-of-ways, would expand I-380 to six lanes between the newly opened Forevergreen Road exit in North Liberty and Highway 30 in Cedar Rapids. It includes raised bridges and roadways to avoid closures in flood-prone areas, and improvements to exits at Penn Street in North Liberty, 120th Street at Swisher and Shueyville, and Wright Brothers Boulevard near the Eastern Iowa Airport.

The exits at Penn Street and Wright Brothers Boulevard would feature “diverging diamonds,” a new design that addresses congestion by allowing vehicles to travel more quickly through an intersection, and are particularly effective at locations with high volumes of left-turn traffic.

The still-unfunded proposal would not go forward until work is complete on the Interstate 80/380 interchange, which includes widening I-380 to six lanes between I-80 and Forevergreen Road, and U.S. Highway 218 from the interchange to approximately two miles south of I-80.

That means construction to offer three lanes in each direction – and enough median space to accommodate up to four in the future – along the entire journey from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids would not begin until 2024 at the earliest.

“And realistically, it would probably be after that,” Ms. Cutler said. At a “super optimistic” rate of one interchange and two to three miles of expanded roadway every few years, the entire length could hypothetically be completed by 2032, she added.

Development booster

For the mayors of fast-growing Corridor towns that stand to benefit from the improved access and connectivity wider roadways could bring, upgrades to I-380 cannot come soon enough.

“I am definitely a supporter,” said Terry Donahue, mayor of North Liberty, which has been named one of Iowa’s fastest-growing cities for almost a decade, with a population increase of 45 percent over that time – from 13,374 in 2010 to 19,500 in 2018. “This will expand all sorts of commerce for the entire Corridor area. It will improve access to the Eastern Iowa Airport, which is growing fast, and it’s going to help out the large number of trucking companies we have on that route.”

Mr. Donahue said the feedback from large North Liberty-based companies like Heartland Express, GreenState Credit Union and Geico has been overwhelmingly in favor of I-380 improvements that will make it easier to attract employees from both ends of the Corridor.

“There are also plans in the works for [land] annexation for both Tiffin and for us, and this opens up a lot of possibilities,” he said. North Liberty, for example annexed a 58-acre parcel east of I-380, south of St. Andrews Drive and west of Kansas Avenue this past spring. Tiffin, officially Iowa’s fastest-growing town, recently revised its comprehensive plan, noting that some annexation will likely be required to keep up with the town’s predicted 150 percent growth rate between now and 2030.

“Along with Forevergreen Road opening, we see this as a good thing for Tiffin,” said Mayor Steve Berner, citing the additional traffic that could be steered toward fast-growing areas such as the 270-acre Park Place development, located near the I-80/380 interchange.

Mr. Berner also noted that a number of Tiffin residents work in Cedar Rapids, some of whom have found alternate routes to get to work on roadways not intended to handle commuter traffic.

“It’s far better for that traffic to go on an interstate built for it,” he said.

Ms. Cutler said she expects additional traffic to bring additional development, although the widening project does not call for any new interchanges and is mostly intended to make the interstate safer and more reliable as a direct line between two significant job markets. Nearly 18,000 Johnson and Linn county residents live in one county and work in the other, and an estimated 35,000 daily trips are taken between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids for school, shopping, and recreation, according to DOT statistics.

“A roadway always does [bring development],” she said. “But North Liberty and Tiffin are huge growth areas, and I don’t see that stopping with or without this project … Better, safer transportation makes sense for the entire Corridor’s economic development.”

Iowa DOT officials say mass transit won’t do the job with heavy traffic along I-380 expected to nearly double to 90,000 cars a day by 2040. CREDIT IOWA DOT

Choosing a lane

Corridor residents attending a DOT open house in North Liberty earlier this month were mostly positive about the proposed project, although some like Marian Gibbons, who lives near the Forevergreen interchange, worried that three lanes each running between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids could lead to a “zoo”-like atmosphere.

“I think it could make the interstate twice as busy,” Ms. Gibbons said. “We bought our house knowing it could get widened, but we still have questions.”

Ben Kaplan, who helps lead a local urbanism group called Corridor Urbanists, said he was unconvinced adding lanes was necessary after speaking to several DOT engineers at the meeting, arguing that at a cost of more than $14 million a line, the state could do better. Mr. Kaplan pointed out that the DOT could, for instance, implement cheaper, more climate-friendly solutions like restarting rail service between North Liberty for less than $50 million, or work to increase ridership on the $1.5 million-a-year 380 Express Bus Service between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

“It’s a ton of money and frankly, I’m not convinced we really have serious congestion,” said Mr. Kaplan, 32, who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where roadways are routinely far more clogged than here. “I think we have to decide what kind of future we want – if we’re going to sprawl out or reinvest in the places like NewBo and downtown Iowa City that are already built out and served with infrastructure like water and power. This is sucking money out that should be being put back in.” (See associated op-ed from Mr. Kaplan below).

The Iowa DOT considered alternatives to extra lanes in the 380 study, including using the existing CRANDIC line for commuter rail, boosting bus service and park-and-ride van pools. It also looked at active traffic management measures such as variable speed limits and ramp metering to regulate traffic flow.

While none of those ideas are off the table as supplements to road improvements, Ms. Cutler said that looking to 2030 and beyond, “buses and transit are not going to cut it.”

Ron Corbett, business retention and expansion strategist for Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance agreed.

“We know that one of our selling points is the commuting times, and people will drive 37 minutes to get to a job,” said Mr. Corbett, a longtime proponent of adding lanes to 380, including during his two terms as Cedar Rapids mayor. “If we don’t keep the working on our highway system, those commute times will start to creep up.”