Why is it? The Indian Creek Nature Center is readying to buy 28 acres on Otis Road SE at 44th Street, and all of a sudden, thoughts turn to the long-delayed Highway 100 extension project.
The reason is simple: The Highway 100 extension is, among others things, a textbook case in how highway opponents can be accused of using a natural area to block a highway project.
Back to the Indian Creek Nature Center in a bit.
In the Highway 100 instance, the first news reports back in January 2002 talked about the “gift” of 100 acres to Linn County to add to its Rock Island Botanical Preserve. It didn’t matter than nearly all of the land was all-but undevelopable anyway.
Prompting the gift was the Iowa Department of Transportation’s tweak of the proposed Highway 100 alignment, which moved the road a little farther from the Rock Island preserve and a little closer to a housing development. The developers of the development were the givers and the Linn County Conservation Board, which oversees the preserve and saw the gift as a way to keep the highway away from it, the recipients of the gift.
The three-member Linn County Board of Supervisors at the time — Lumir Dostal and two members still on the board today, Jim Houser and Lu Barron — voted in support of the gift. But the three said their vote didn’t matter: The vote by their appointees on the conservation board was the one that sealed the deal, they said.
Interestingly, Linda Langston, who defeated Dostal that year in the race for supervisor, pointed out at a campaign event at the time that Linn County owns the gifted land and it should have been the supervisors who decided to accept or reject the gift.
Cedar Rapids city officials and community leaders called the addition to the county preserve “a ploy” and “a fast one” to sideline a highway that was readying to be built. At the time, the $100-million-plus Highway 100 extension held a coveted spot on the Iowa Transportation Commission’s 5-year building plan, and Tom Aller of Cedar Rapids, president of Iowa Interstate Power, was chairman of the commission.
Aller said then, this project “needs to be built now.”
It hasn’t been.
In the intervening years, as the conservation board refused to allow a right of way through the new land it was now overseeing, the Highway 100 extension fell off the Transportation Commission’s 5-year building list.
The project, though, never fell from favor at City Hall or among the local business community.
In recent years, several environmental studies have been conducted in and around the preserve while the Board of Supervisors has methodically replaced its individual appointees to the county conservation board as terms expired. Eventually, the supervisors removed a sufficient number of Highway 100 opponents on the conservation board to allow the five-member board to approve a right-of-way through the donated land.
Whether there is another legal chapter or two to the Highway 100 extension – which is intended to swing the road from Edgewood Road NE west and south to Highway 30 — is yet to be seen.
Confidence from Highway 100 supporters, though, is back.
Just last week, the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is the former Linn County Regional Planning Commission, put the long-languishing Highway 100 extension project back on its priority list, a move needed to secure federal funding for the project.
It was a coincidence, of course, but the move by the MPO last week came even as Indian Creek Nature Center’s longtime director, Rich Patterson, was announcing the center’s plans to purchase 28 acres of land and timber on Otis Road SE at 44th Street.
Patterson assured that adding 28 acres to the center’s reach will not block any highway projects.
But it was worth asking the question, he acknowledged.
After all, as recently as 2003, what is now called the Corridor MPO was still paying an engineering consultant to come up with an alignment for a road extension and new bridge that in 2030 might run from Mount Vernon Road SE across the Cedar River to Highway 30.
Already by 2003, the planners had given up on extending East Post Road SE south of Mount Vernon Road SE because the public opposition was just too great; so the engineering consultants suggested extending one of the next north-south streets to the east of East Post Road SE. The preferred option was 42nd Street with 44th Street a second option. Then the whole idea was set aside.
Patterson last week said the new Nature Center property along Otis Road SE doesn’t reach anywhere near 42nd Street. The new property does sit on the corner of 44th Street, he said. But he added that the center’s property does not have any special standing as a state-designated preserve like the original 20 acres of the Rock Island Botanical Preserve does. That designation can complicate a highway project.
In truth, though, so much has changed since 2003.
Back then, the city of Cedar Rapids had a commission form of government and a streets commissioner, who, along with his engineering staff, was pretty convinced that the city one day would need another bridge across the river on the eastern edge of the city.
But the city now has changed its form of government, and today it is led by a part-time council with a different attitude about building roads and bridges. The city’s professional engineering staff has never gotten more help than it does now from the city’s citizen City Council.
After all, this is the council that in the last month refused to add a turn lane to the East Post Road bridge over Indian Creek no matter what the city’s engineers and consultants had suggested. In fact, the council is requiring that a new trail section that goes with the new two-lane bridge be built as a separate structure so the engineers don’t later figure out some way to use it to widen the bridge for motorists.
Other things may have changed in the last few years, too.
Maybe there never will be the kind of highway money available to build new bridges as there might have been in the past.
Maybe, too, there will be fewer vehicle in the future, not more, even if Cedar Rapids continues to grow.
And if the Highway 100 extension is ever built, it certainly will open up growth in Cedar Rapids to the west, which is a long way from East Post Road SE, 42nd Street SE, Mount Vernon Road SE and the Indian Creek Nature Center.