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Highway 20 sees spike in traffic in northwest Iowa

SIOUX CITY — The numbers are indeed on the rise.

For years, when people pushed to get U.S. Highway 20 moved from two to four lanes in northwest Iowa, supporters said it would make for a safer thoroughfare and bring increased traffic, which could boost economic development.

In the few months since the Highway 20 modernization was finished with a final project covering 40 miles from Woodbury to Sac counties, that prediction has panned out, as Iowa Department of Transportation statistics show a spike in traffic.

Iowa DOT official Dakin Schultz told the Sioux City Journal that the average daily traffic count at the west edge of Ida County from late 2018 into January has been in the range from 3,826 to 4,621.

The counts went from 4,495 in October to 4,621 in November, then fell lower in winter months, as is often the case in other counts done by IDOT on other highways.

Those counts were at a spot between the towns of Holstein and Cushing. That top count 4,621 total makes for a more than 20 percent uptick from before the project was completed, when daily traffic totals were 3,609 for the entire year of 2015.

“We have not had a chance to obtain a year’s worth of counts or complete counts as part of our annual count program, but we have seen an increase in traffic at the automatic traffic recorder location near Cushing,” Schultz said.

The completed highway opened in October, and a host of state department officials and others buoyantly commemorated the advancement with a ribbon cutting at Holstein.

They celebrated that Highway 20 had been modernized to four lanes wide all the way across Iowa. Previously into the 1980s, with the exception of 15 miles from Sioux City to Moville, only the eastern two-thirds of Iowa had four lanes.

In the last dozen years, 20-to-25-mile sections with four lanes were opened. First was a segment from Moorland to Rockwell City. Then came Rockwell City to Early, in a layout more to the north and bypassing most towns. That left a 40-mile section with two lanes back to Moville.

The Iowa Legislature approved a 10-cent increase in the state gasoline tax in 2015, and within months the Iowa Transportation Commission used that extra revenue to slate the completion of Highway 20 in Woodbury, Ida and Sac counties. That resulted in a three-year flurry of work, in a $215 million endeavor that finally moved all 300 miles across Iowa to four lanes, 60 years after the Sioux City to Moville section had been broadened.

Moville Mayor Jim Fisher said he has literally seen the bump in traffic.

“I know it has increased. I can see that very strongly,” he said.

Fisher said he had been in meetings in which Hy-Vee grocery chain officials said they wouldn’t use Highway 20 from a warehouse facility in Cherokee. But instead of using U.S. Highway 3 to head to some destinations, the Hy-Vee trucks are now using Highway 20, he said.

Fisher said Moville businesses have located on the town’s frontage road, which is within eyeshot of Highway 20, since 2016. A Lewis Drug pharmacy, Dollar General store, Movillatte coffee shop and Nicklas D. Jensen Funeral Home and Monument Company have opened on the frontage road.

Fisher said Jensen officials also opened a facility in Correctionville, 15 miles to the east, for the “exposure” of being on Highway 20.

Fisher said Moville officials will continue moves to modernize frontage road infrastructure, to keep the growth going.

“We want to take advantage of that traffic. That’s why stores are being improved down there,” he said.

Iowa school districts face bus driver shortage

FARLEY (AP) — The wheels on the bus might go round and round, but the reality for many Iowa school districts is there is a significant need for the drivers of those buses.

The dearth of school bus drivers arguably is felt most greatly in large districts that have expansive geographic areas to cover; districts like Western Dubuque Community Schools.

Western Dubuque’s district spans 555 square miles, making it the largest in terms of geographic area in the state. The district has 55 bus routes with 75 part- and full-time drivers.

Bob Hingtgen, the district’s maintenance and transportation director, said that while the district is trying to be as flexible as possible to encourage applicants, they still struggle to retain drivers.

“It’s a big struggle trying to keep drivers,” he said. “We have drivers just in the morning or in the afternoon route to fit their schedule to accommodate them. But we would love to have another 10 subs on our list. But I don’t see that happening right away.”

The situation has become so dire that some area districts are relying on bus mechanics, custodians and other school employees to make do.

“We have teachers, cooks who drive after their kitchen shifts and maintenance staff who are certified to drive,” Hingtgen said. “And we use them frequently. We even have an ex-superintendent who would sub drive for us.”

Officials from the Dubuque Community School District said they can empathize with Western Dubuque.

“Our mechanics are constantly driving to fill in, and those in our transport office are driving too,” said Phil Kramer, the district’s executive director of human resources. “Even our transportation director might. It’s all-hands-on-deck and we’re still having some struggles.”

Causes for the shortage include low unemployment in the strong economy; the extra certification and training needed to become a bus driver; the unique hours; and, in some instances, a lack of insurance or benefits.

In order to drive a school bus in Iowa, a driver needs to have a commercial driver’s license, must pass a physical examination and complete additional online training through the state Department of Education to obtain a school bus driving endorsement.

Hingtgen said though the district reimburses drivers for the certification, training fees and physical, it can be “too many hoops to jump through” for some applicants.

“I think a lot of people also get scared off by the idea of the big yellow bus and driving a bunch of kids,” he said. “But once they get in here, it’s very rewarding and not as daunting as it looks. We just have to get them in here.”

Phyllis Errthum of Bankston has been driving buses for Western Dubuque for 35 years. She said what she does is a calling.

“It’s not ever something I’d thought I’d do, but I love it,” she said. “I’m very blessed and I have very good students. I always tell them it’s all about their safety.”

She drives a 77-passenger bus in the northern part of the district and said the work is “perfect” for her.

“I can drive my bus in the morning and then do what I want to do during the day and then come back in the afternoon,” she said. “For me, the hours were appealing.”

Pay for full-time drivers in Western Dubuque starts at $16.83 per hour, with part-time pay starting at $16.68 per hour. Some districts have started to offer signing bonuses for drivers, something that Western Dubuque might have to consider, Superintendent Rick Colpitts said.

“Everybody who works here has some benefits based on the number of hours they work through IPERS (Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System) and they would accumulate personal and sick leave like everyone else,” he said.

However, for Errthum, the real perks of bus driving come from the relationships she forms with her riders.

“I’ve had kids that rode my bus and now their kids ride my bus,” she said. “They’ll come back and say, ‘Oh, Phyllis, you were the best driver,’ and it shows that what you did make an impact on their lives. That’s probably the best part.”

Special election candidates want your vote

WATERLOO — With a little more than a week to go, the candidates for the Iowa Senate District 30 special election are running at full speed.

Voters will decide March 19 between Republican candidate Walt Rogers, Democratic candidate Eric Giddens and Libertarian Fred Perryman, all of Cedar Falls. District 30 covers Cedar Falls, Hudson and portions of Waterloo.

The special election is coming as a result of former Sen. Jeff Danielson’s resignation last month to become the American Wind Energy Association’s central region director.

Winter weather has posed an obstacle to campaigning. Candidates have had to cancel several outdoor canvassing events because of excessive snow or low temperatures.

Rogers, 57, is no stranger to running for the Senate. He ran against Danielson in 2008 and lost by 22 votes. He was later elected in Iowa House District 60 and served for eight years before being unseated by Rep. Dave Williams in 2018.

Rogers sees the special election as an opportunity. Initially, Rogers planned to stay out of the race, but eventually was overwhelmed with people calling on him to run, he said.

Rogers’ campaign focuses on his legislative record calling for “smaller, smarter government.”

That includes “budget control and utilizing the money we do have in smart ways and making sure every department and everything that needs funding is funded appropriately,” Roger said.

Rogers notes he will be in the majority party if elected, putting him in a better position to get things done. That will give Black Hawk County and the University of Northern Iowa a larger voice in Des Moines, he says.

“People don’t understand that the majority party is making all the decisions,” Rogers said. “We don’t have a voice in that group.”

During Rogers’ time in the Legislature, he chaired the House Education Committee.

“I led the fight to free up over $200 million throughout the state for money schools already had, but because of old code and laws they couldn’t touch it,” he said.

Rogers was the only Republican who sought the seat.

Giddens, 45 and a Democrat, comes from an educational background. He is a member of the Cedar Falls Board of Education and has taught in Cedar Falls and Honduras.

Originally from Georgia, Giddens moved to Cedar Falls with his family to teach ninth-grade math at Peet Junior High School before becoming a a program manager for the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at UNI.

He runs a program to help local governments develop climate action plans, “helping address climate change at the local level,” Giddens said. He’s worked at UNI for four years.

Giddens beat four other hopefuls for the Democratic nomination, including Amy Petersen, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa; Sasha Wohlpart, a member of the Cedar Falls Board of Education; Tom Ralston, a former union leader and employee of John Deere; and John Berry, director of Tri-County Head Start.

He grew up around education and educators.

“Public education has always been a central component in my life,” Giddens said. His wife, Kendra, has taught in the Cedar Falls school district as well.

He calls education the bedrock of society.

“If we don’t have a strong, healthy, functioning public education system, then a lot of other things begin to crumble,” Giddens said. “It’s worth fighting for.”

He supports continuing the backfill, money meant to compensate local governments for revenue lost to property tax cuts approved by the Iowa Legislature in 2013.

“Cutting back on a promise is not very ethical, in my opinion,” Giddens said.

In the past, Rogers has said the backfill can’t last forever.

Perryman, 38 and a Libertarian, hasn’t been part of a candidate forum, but he wants to bring his voice into the mix.

He’s been interested in politics for a while and unsuccessfully ran for state auditor in 2018. He’s lived in Cedar Falls for 14 years. He was born in New York while his father was in the Navy. He is an assistant manager at Blaine’s Farm and Fleet.

“We’re fighting over issues that we’re not going to resolve anytime soon,” Perryman said.

He sees himself as a compromise or purple choice between the Democrats and Republicans. When Perryman first moved to Cedar Falls, he considered himself a Republican, but said the extremism he saw on both sides of the aisle led him to a third party.

The restoration of voting rights for felons being considered by legislators this session is an important issue for Perryman. He wants to see it succeed.

“It’s not really fixed yet,” he said.

As a Libertarian, he wants to see government less involved with most issues.

“Everybody’s in favor of individual rights,” Perryman said. “If you’re not hurting anybody, why are we focusing on criminalizing things?”