Cedar Rapids would already have a dazzling new $200-million federal courthouse and a new, $100-million-plus, 7-mile highway extending Highway 100 from Edgewood Road west and south to Highway 30 if only the wants of nearly every community leader and local elected official was what mattered.
Both projects have languished nearly a decade or more.
On Friday, word arrived that the Highway 100 project has benefitted from what came to the rescue of the courthouse project early last fall –- a federal “earmark,” one of those special insertions into big congressional spending bills that are often pooh-poohed but much beloved at the local level.
In the just-passed congressional Omnibus budget bill, Congress has earmarked $950,000 for the Highway 100 Extension, which Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser and Lu Barron, chairwoman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors, on Friday said is a vital boost for the highway project.
The money will come to the city of Cedar Rapids to begin the process of buying up property for the highway’s right of way, Prosser and Barron said.
The key task now, the two said, is to get the Highway 100 Extension back into the Iowa Transportation Commission’s five-year construction plan, which is where it needs to be for the highway to get built.
Prosser said the congressional earmark will get the project into that crucial Transportation Commission lineup.
The project had been in that lineup at the start of the decade and the project had a champion for it on the Transportation Commission, Cedar Rapidian Tom Aller, the Alliant Energy executive.
In fact, the highway would already be in place had proponents of the highway project, including Cedar Rapids City Hall, not been outmaneuvered by project opponents.
Those opponents fit into two groups: Those concerned about Linn County’s Rock Island Botanical Preserve, which sits along the route of the highway extension; and the developers of a higher-end housing development near the proposed highway.
The federal highway-building bureaucracy requires that a project take steps to make sure it does not damage the environment. And after all these years, the Highway 100 Extension project has cleared the environmental hurdles.
What the backers of the project had not foreseen was the imagination of developers, James Properties Inc., and the ability of a non-elected Linn County Conservation Board to join forces with them to block the project.
Back in early 2002, as the Highway 100 Extension project was working its way through the required federal environmental assessment project, the developers donated pieces of land with no development potential to the county’s Rock Island Botanical Preserve so that the preserve now extended into the alignment of the highway.
The Conservation Board gushingly accepted the donation.
It took several years for the terms of Conservation Board members to end and new appointees by the Linn County supervisors to take their places before the Conservation Board was willing to allow a right-of-way through the donated land for the highway.
By the way, it was back in the early fall of 2008 that the federal “earmark” phenomenon came to the rescue of the downtown courthouse project. That happened after the June flood damaged the existing federal courthouse here and helped Iowa’s congressional delegation to make the case to insert $182-million request into a funding bill to get a new courthouse built.
Construction will start within weeks at the site between the Cedar River and Second Street SE and Seventh and Eighth avenues SE. (First Street SE will dead end at Seventh Avenue SE for the new courthouse, and on Friday, First Street SE was closed off. Drive down there, and get a feel for the new traffic pattern.)