Letter to the Editor

Highway 86 concerns

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The purpose of this letter is to express concern residents along Highway 86 north of Highway 9 have concerning the proposed reconstruction of the highway. Everyone agrees 100 percent that Highway 86 needs to be improved, but how to accomplish that is the controversy.

In the January 2012 edition of "Highways and Your Land" published and distributed by the Iowa Department of Transportation, at page 1, under Section 2, "Programming," the DOT states:

"In making decisions about projects, the commissioners consider:

* what the public says at public hearings and through other communications

* the condition of existing highways

* the potential for economic growth resulting from highway improvements

* the need to improve safety, and

* whether completing a specific project would be the best use of available funds."

In the same publication, at page 1, Section 3, "Preliminary Engineering," it is stated:

"In this phase of project development, the DOT's staff determines the most feasible and economical route for the highway. ... "

One would assume that widening the shoulders on the existing roadbed and leveling the hills would best meet those guidelines, but the present DOT plan moves the entire roadbed, zigzagging from east to west depending upon the location of certain land. What is this land? The land protected is designated as a wildlife and waterfowl refuge, owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and managed by the Iowa DNR. This land is protected under Section 4(F) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, which prohibits the use of such refuges for transportation projects unless unavoidable. Environmental resources located on PRIVATE property are not protected by this act.

Additionally, the project doesn't accurately consider the impact of all lands protected by Section 4(F). Department of Transportation Act Section 4(F), codified in 1983 as 49 U.S.C. 303, at subsection (c) states:

"The Secretary may approve a transportation program or project (other than any project for a park road or parkway under section 204 of title 23) [of the United States Code, "Federal Lands Highways Program"] requiring the use of publicly owned land or a public park, recreation area, or wildlife and waterfowl refuge of national, state, or local significance, or land of an historic site of national, State, or local significance (as determined by Federal, State, or local officials having jurisdiction over the park, area, refuge, or site) only if --

* there is no prudent and feasible alternative to using that land; and

* the program or project includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the park, recreation area, wildlife and waterfowl refuge, or historic site resulting from the use."

This project is bordered on both the east and west by land owned by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the southern two miles. Inasmuch as the entire roadbed is to be moved to the west through this area, the fact is that the publicly owned land on the west will be encroached upon far more than if the entire project were to be run along the current roadbed and simply widened. The overall impact on both sides of the highway through this publicly owned land would be far less than that created by the moving of the entire roadbed.

Regarding consideration of "what the public says at public hearings and through other communications," it is apparent that the plans described as "preliminary" at the first public meeting last summer were pretty well carved in stone before public comment was ever received.

The outcome of the proposed plan, in some cases, totally ruins present farms and acreages, removing hundreds of trees and shrubs that serve as windbreaks, sound barriers, and habitat, and placing a busy highway through front yards and through the middle of farmers' fields. Trees are given little or no value. The public land is labeled as "environmentally sensitive" whether its present use by the DNR is for farming (take a look at the hay bales and sometimes cornfields within this "sensitive" land) or is a wetland. This "environmentally sensitive" land was strictly used as farm ground until it was recently purchased and reclassified as a wildlife and waterfowl management area. The road in question pre-existed the use of the protected land as a wildlife and waterfowl management area by several decades. We would all gladly agree to use our land if the portion of the land in question which would be affected by the road construction really was valuable habitat, however, in reality this area supports far less wildlife than the hundreds of trees and shrubs which will be removed from private property.

Our plea is for common sense regarding the fiscally responsible use of public funds and a true consideration of the overall environmental impact when taking into account both private and public land in the construction of improvements to Highway 86 from Highway 9 to the Minnesota border.

Bob and Mary Emgarten

Don and Teresa Johnson