Your Town Now: Iowa City’s 2014 Outlook

Your Town Now
2014 is the year for the next review of the Iowa City Charter — photo by Rachel Jessen

Having appreciated “Auld Lang Syne,” it’s time now, in the cold light of January, to consider several issues that are locally important for 2014.

Emerald Ash Borer Is On the Way

On Nov. 1, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported that 25 eastern Iowa counties are quarantined because of the emerald ash borer (EAB). If residents of Iowa City were asked if they knew this, a significant number would answer ‘no’—and many of them have ash trees in their home landscaping.

There is no resistance to the EAB: It methodically kills every tree it infests. The first infestation in the state was noted in 2010 in Allamakee County; this year, EABs have been found in Des Moines (July), Jefferson (August) and Cedar (October) counties. This insect’s territory spreads quickly.

Johnson County has many thousands of ash trees that will eventually succumb to the beetle’s attack. Local governmental officials should be putting forth information repeatedly about this impending devastation, detailing for the public what individual homeowners can do about the problem (not much, except possibly delay the demise of individual trees at a rather high cost per tree) and what governments are doing now to curtail the spread of the destruction. We also need to know what the long range plans are for replacing the trees that will be lost on public lands, and officials should provide a list of alternative species that will grow well here and can be planted this spring to begin replacing what we surely will lose.

Once the beetle gets to Johnson County, it will take only a few years to drastically change the landscape, as the EAB quickly kills all species of ash.

It is estimated that once the borer is detected in Johnson County, it will be only eight to 11 years until there will be no living ash trees. Anyone who travels the Coralville strip will quickly grasp how bare it will look after the borer has taken out the many ashes planted there by the city. Imagine that same amount of devastation throughout the county. It is foolish to ignore this impending loss of our trees, and it is irresponsible to not inform the public more fully about the situation.

Waste of Money to Raise Dubuque Street 

Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on various Mississippi River projects over the years, yet the river still floods, causing catastrophic damage worth further billions of dollars. Much has been written about the Federal Corps of Engineers’ wasteful projects built using faulty analyses and about the corruption and mismanagement that often accompany them.

Iowa City’s plan to spend over $45 million to raise Dubuque Street might have been made in good faith. It might be based on competent analysis, and it even might work in a limited way (until the 1,000 year flood hits)—but the cost-benefit ratio is terrible, and no guarantee exists that the plan won’t cause more problems than it’s intended to solve, much like many of the Corps’ previous projects.

As it stands now, the Iowa City Gateway Project includes building a new Park Road Bridge: about 450 feet long by 85 feet wide with five 12-foot lanes and constructed so that the lowest point of the bridge substructure will provide a one-foot clearance over a 500-year flood. This gigantic bridge plan looks like the wet dream of engineers who think they can solve all problems with concrete and steel and a sop to keep UI President Sally Mason happy.

And, if the Mayflower residence hall weren’t under threat of flooding from time to time, the university wouldn’t have this headache: It’s a property that the UI bought and remodeled years ago, despite its location in the floodplain, when more dorm rooms for undergraduates were needed.

Dubuque Street has been closed due to flooding about 150 days over the past 20 years. For argument’s sake, let’s assume the bridge would be closed 10 days every year for the next 20 years for a total of 200 days. At a cost of $45 million, we would be paying $225,000 for each of the 200 days the street was kept dry. This large sum of money could very well end up being a waste as this massive project will likely cause more problems than it solves: Channeled water has to go somewhere. It would be better to put that $45 million into replacing the structurally deficient Park Road Bridge to allow water to run more freely under it during excessive rain and using remaining funds to clear away as many man-made obstacles as possible in the floodplain that impede the flow of water.

Change the City Charter

For the many citizens frustrated by our current city government’s structure, there is a glimmer of hope: 2014 is the year for the next review of the Iowa City Charter.

On Jan. 7, the city council will announce the formation of the Charter Review Commission and call for applications from citizens wishing to be members.

Do you think the mayor should be elected by the voters? Do you think the existing district versus at-large arrangement for city council elections needs modifying? Hot under the collar because of the current petitioning process for initiative and referendum as well as the restrictions on it? Then watch for the council’s announcement and offer your services.

Smoke Screen Update

Since the publication of our Smoke Screen articles, several citizens have approached us to express outrage over current local marijuana law enforcement—some of them with personal experience.

Members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors spoke to state legislators about changing Iowa’s marijuana laws at a legislative priorities meeting on Dec. 10. Let the supervisors know you support their efforts to get the laws changed.

The city council signs off on each year’s Edward J. Byrne grant application in May or June. Let councilors know that you oppose this funding, spent primarily to arrest and charge those who use marijuana in private; that applications for the Byrne Grant should be discontinued; and that the Johnson County Drug Task Force must be disbanded as it serves no useful purpose.

Carol deProsse and Caroline Dieterle: 85+ collective years of trying to shake up the system.

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