Who will be left to pay for rural Iowa’s roads?

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Written by NOLAN MONAGHAN (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Rural Iowa has too many roads, and the cost is increasingly being borne by too few people.

Many small towns across Iowa have faced an issue of long-term depopulation for the past several decades. This trend is driven primarily by a lack of opportunity in the state’s rural communities due to reduced employment over the past 40 years, mainly from the loss of manufacturing and on-farm jobs, which has driven population growth toward urban areas.

The state’s metropolitan areas of Des Moines and Iowa City are some of the only places that reported growth rates above 1% in the last census, and most rural counties are shrinking in population by up to 2.6%.

Additionally, rural areas are becoming older, with the median age being 43, compared to 36 in urban areas. This transition presents several strains on state and local governments, from fewer families necessitating the consolidation of school districts to worker shortages in the health and eldercare sectors compromising medical services. As populations shrink and age, communities struggle to cope while the needs of their citizens grow.

A critical sector where this manifests is in the road system, and Iowa is a state where geography and demographics meet to exacerbate this issue the most.

The state’s roads are organized primarily in a grid system, with one road every mile vertically and horizontally. This system derives from the land parceling system used by the Homestead Act to distribute land in square blocks to settlers. When road construction began, this one-by-one-mile road grid was created to ensure every farm had access to regional transportation corridors.

This is why Iowa is ranked 7th in miles of road per capita among the 50 states. Western states like Colorado distributed land in larger parcels, meaning road densities are lower in their rural areas. Other central states, such as Wisconsin or Missouri, distributed land in similar size parcels but have large swaths of land in forests, lowering their need to build dense road networks in these areas. These states face many of the same pressures around road costs, but they are particularly pronounced in Iowa due to history and geography.

This dense road system worked well until rural depopulation accelerated. As more and more people left rural counties, the unit of government tasked with maintaining secondary roads, the tax base eroded and governments are struggling to maintain infrastructure that is excessive for their current populations.

One may expect a lower population to lead to less use, reducing the need to replace roads and bridges and slashing costs. While this may be true to some extent, much spending is not on road construction and replacement but on plowing snow or laying gravel. Plus, sharp temperature changes necessitate frequent repaving, and in general, the simple aging of infrastructure adds to the need to replace and repair, even on roads that are not used as often.

Shrinking populations lead to soaring per-capita road costs

Take Cherokee County in the state’s northwest corner as a case study. In 2001, the county spent roughly $4.6 million on roads (adjusted for inflation), while in 2019, it spent roughly $6.5 million. Meanwhile, the county’s population dropped by over 1,300 people between the 2000 and 2020 censuses. This means that the cost per county resident is rising $200 every year for road upkeep. Property taxes have increased in the county, partially to cover the difference in lost population and income for the county.

In contrast, take Dallas County, which has more than doubled in population from 40,000 to nearly 100,000, largely from the expansion of the Des Moines suburbs. Over this period, per capita road costs have dropped by nearly 50% despite all of the construction necessary to absorb said growth.

More urbanized counties can lower these costs by taking advantage of density, which lowers the per-person cost of providing services, along with surging tax income from the boost in economic activity.

Statewide, counties that showed a decrease in population found their per capita road costs
increase by 43%, whereas counties that grew in population only had their per capita costs
increase by 18%. Keeping up with an overbuilt infrastructure stock in shrinking counties
stretches budgets thin.

Why not close roads

This necessitates the question, why not close the roads as the population dwindles? For most rural road segments in the state, there may be anywhere from two to 10 houses along that road. As families move away and farmers retire, some homes will be bought up, but they may become abandoned or transitioned back into farmland just as often.

The problem is that there is little pattern to which houses meet which fate. This leads to a situation where one road may have had eight households 30 years ago, but today only has two. The cost of maintaining that road is fixed, six houses have been removed from the tax base that supports the road.

Additionally, it’s not just households that need to be serviced by roads, but parcels of farmland or animal confinements that may only be accessible by a small stretch of gravel road with no houses. And, of course, the tax revenues on housing are much higher than revenues on farmland. So, the transition of houses to farmland reduces tax receipts, even if that land is still
economically productive.

This problem doesn’t just apply to roads in the countryside; it also applies to rural towns and villages and can even be more pronounced in those contexts. At least with land outside city limits, houses can be transitioned to agriculture and contribute to the local tax base to an extent. With agricultural mechanization, rural depopulation doesn’t inherently reduce the productivity, and thus tax receipts, from the land.

The same can’t be said for small towns, where the closing of manufacturing and retail has meant a death knell for their economies. And when those tax bases leave, there is no one to replace them like with farmland, meaning that town roads are where this problem reaches a flux point.

No easy answers

As with many rural issues, there are no silver-bullet solutions. As discussed, closing roads or
cutting services is untenable, as few roads are completely unused. At the same time, with
continued depopulation and sluggish growth in many rural communities, the underlying
budgetary issue will only worsen.

Privatization of road stretches that service an individual household could be a potential solution, or transitioning stretches of road that service no households or fields into a lower level of maintenance or back into farmland could also shave costs for local governments.

Ultimately, most roads still service some farmers and households, and a sustainable solution seems unlikely. Roads can’t be consolidated like school districts, so costs will continue to balloon, or the maintenance of this vital infrastructure will have to slip lower on the priority scale for cash-strapped towns and counties.

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