Transportation Policy Committee Supports Opting Out of Road Swap

Reject road swap program

  • Updated 
Swaps art
On Tuesday, members of the Bi-State Regional Commission’s Transportation Policy Committee are scheduled to decide whether to take part in the federal aid swap program authorized by the Iowa Legislature in 2017.

For months, labor unions and local contractors have been lobbying against the program, which state officials say is a way to deliver projects faster and at less expense. The state says it has the experience managing projects that come with the overhead and regulations that are part and parcel of federal-aid projects.

Unions say this would be a way to avoid federal prevailing wage requirements, and that it will lead to lower-cost, out-of-area contractors winning jobs that previously had gone to local companies. They also say the swap will bypass federal requirements to buy American products and ensure some contracts go to minority- and women-owned businesses.

The swap program basically works like this: The state would give local governments state dollars in exchange for their federal dollars for road and bridge projects. According to the Bi-State Regional Commission, about $15 million dollars in swap-eligible funds are in its four-year Transportation Improvement Program.

Iowa’s Department of Transportation says this concept is not unique. Other states in the Midwest are doing it. And on these pages last week, Mark Lowe, the DOT director, wrote that the same amount of federal money, with all the attendant federal requirements, will be spent in this area – it will just be administered by the state DOT rather than local authorities.

Our concern is the impact this will have on local contractors. Consider Michelle DeCap, chief financial officer of Phoenix Corporation, of Rapids City, Ill. This Quad-City company has done projects on both sides of the river for years. DeCap told us that, even though the same amount of federal money might be spent locally, she believes the funds will be rolled into larger state jobs and there will be a smaller number of projects for her firm to bid on — meaning fewer opportunities for Phoenix, a certified woman-owned business, to win local projects.

A number of area organizations, many of them labor unions, have opposed this move. But so has the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce. The chamber worried that participating in the swap program “may allow for more businesses from outside the Quad-Cities region that don’t follow [federal wage and discrimination] guidelines to garner work, which would have a direct negative impact on our region.”

The law passed by the legislature assumes the swap will take place unless a local planning organization decides to opt out.

On Tuesday, the Transportation Policy Committee will take up this matter – and there is a measure on the agenda that only the Iowa members of the committee vote, not those who are from Illinois. Arguably, this is an issue that affects the entire community. Still, the Iowa members are Mayors Frank Klipsch of Davenport, Bob Gallagher of Bettendorf and Marty O’Boyle of Eldridge; Scott County Supervisor Ken Croken and Ray Ambrose and Kerri Tompkins, who are members of the Davenport City Council. The DOT also has a seat on the committee.

We respect the state DOT’s wishes. The agency is a valuable partner in our community, particularly on the construction of the new Interstate-74 bridge. We also recognize that some smaller cities and counties may not have the staff and expertise to manage these dollars. But we have confidence in our local governments to be able to do so. After all, they have done it for years.

We also believe federal regulations that guarantee livable wages, the purchase of American products and providing opportunities for historically disadvantaged business owners are worthwhile – for local projects, as well as those managed by the DOT.

As we said earlier, we are concerned about local contractors, their employees and their families. Their wages and profits support other businesses and our community. The apprenticeship programs created as a result prepare our workforce.

What DeCap said echoed loudly with us.  If there are fewer opportunities for her company to compete on local road projects because they can now be accessed by lower-cost firms that aren’t from around here, that is not good for the Quad-Cities. We would add the Midwest Economic Policy Institute, a group working with those opposing the swap program, tells us its research finds that local contractors account for 10 percent less market share when Davis-Bacon standards are not included on projects.

The DOT has told us it would likely undertake more projects than it has in the past because of the swap program. We respect that goal, but we still must see the evidence.

This is a new program in Iowa. We believe it must prove itself. As it stands, we have doubts about what impact this would have on our local workforce and employers.

Our elected representatives, the people who sit on the Transportation Policy Committee, should take up their interests first. We urge them to reject the swap program.


Davenport mayor commits to leaving Iowa Department of Transportation’s federal aid swap program

Tri-City Building and Construction Trades Council Executive Director Jerry Lack spoke about his opposition to the Iowa Department of Transportation Federal Aid Swap program during a news conference May 13 in Jetty Park on the Bettendorf riverfront
Three of Davenport’s elected officials have vowed to leave a contentious program administered by the Iowa Department of Transportation that swaps federal dollars for state dollars on major infrastructure projects.

Called the “Federal-Aid Swap,” the program was put in place roughly two years ago under a Republican-led effort by Iowa lawmakers to bypass administrative and engineering costs required for projects that receive federal money. All cities and towns in the state were automatically adopted into the program.

Proponents of the program say it saves taxpayer dollars, while opponents have argued that the federal requirements that the state is bypassing protect prevailing wages for workers and ensure materials are bought from American manufacturers.

Davenport has three seats on the Bi-State Regional Commission’s transportation policy committee, the metropolitan planning organization that oversees federal projects in the Quad-Cities. That committee is scheduled to vote on opting out next week. If the matter goes to a vote with only Iowa members participating — an expected outcome — then the regional commission will likely become the second in the state to leave Iowa’s program.

Scott County Supervisor Ken Croken, another committee member supporting the opt-out, said leaving the program is a major influence on the “future economic vitality of our region.”

For months, labor leaders — along with a growing coalition of contractors and business groups — have called for the opt-out. Members say participation in Iowa’s program threatens to take jobs from local workers and harm the regional economy.

Meanwhile, others in the Iowa Quad-Cities are steadfastly opposed. Bettendorf Mayor Bob Gallagher, another voting member of the transportation policy committee, said Wednesday that his city stands to lose between $800,000 and $1.6 million on its big federal project for Forest Grove Road because of the “federal hoops” that have to be jumped through.

Gallagher also challenged the conclusion that swapping federal dollars would lead to fewer jobs for local contractors, saying “that’s just not true.”  “The frustration is we are having to deal with misinformation in an attempt to sway a decision,” Gallagher said, adding: “ It does save taxpayer money in the end, and that’s why I support staying in the Iowa program like every single other (metropolitan planning organization) in Iowa except in Johnson County, which is the only one that has opted out.”

Back in Davenport, Mayor Frank Klipsch, who is chairman of the deciding committee, made his announcement on the opt-out during a meeting in City Hall. He prefaced the message by saying the decision had been made after consulting aldermen and others in the community.

“We’ll be voting to opt out next week,” the mayor said, earning applause from several attendees who’d come donning T-shirts with union logos.

Ryan Drew, an organizer with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 in Rock Island, thanked the mayor and council members for their decision, saying the local workforce “is something that the community should be proud of.”

“Not everywhere in the country, not everywhere in this state, can you go and build a $1 billion bridge and use local workers,” he said. “That pays great dividends to this community.”


Schools credit new sales tax receipts for $11M in improvements

Sales tax receipts allowing school upgrades

Legat Architects has created this rendering of the potential renovated front of Rock Island High School, using funds generated by the Rock Island County 1 percent sales tax for school facilities.

More than $11 million has now flowed to Rock Island County schools for facility improvements in 1 percent sales tax funding.

School administrators said the money is creating schools with better learning environments for students.

Rock Island County voters approved the tax Nov. 8, 2016, after three failed attempts and adoption of similar sales tax in Scott, Henry and Mercer counties.

Collections of the tax began in July 2017. As of September, the Regional Office of Education had distributed $11.6 million to 14 school districts.

Disbursements are paid monthly, three months after Rock Island County shoppers pay sales tax on items. Districts got their first disbursement for facility projects in October 2017.

In addition to the 10 school districts in Rock Island County, schools in Colona, Erie, Orion and Mercer County also received a portion of the 1 percent sales tax because some of their students reside in Rock Island County.

Funding is based on student population, with Moline-Coal Valley receiving nearly $3.9 million. About a third of all Rock Island County students reside in the district.

The Rock Island-Milan district, with about 30 percent of the county’s students, has received $3.4 million.

The districts are wasting no time putting the new tax revenue to work. Many are completing long overdue repairs or new projects, such as heating and air conditioning, parking lots, building safety and LED lighting.

Some districts, such as Silvis, are using a pay-as-you-go approach. Silvis, Superintendent Terri VandeWiele said the district has used the revenue to replace a water heater and 50-year-old doors at George O. Barr Elementary.

The Moline-Coal Valley and United Township High School districts have used bonding to get major projects off the ground.

Dave McDermott, Moline-Coal Valley chief financial officer, said districts legally can bond up to 80 percent of expected revenues. His district has bonded out for about $22 million in projects, with the bonds expected to be repaid in about nine years.

The project list includes $15 million for HVAC and electrical at the high school, $3 million for the Bartlett Performing Arts Center, $2.5 million for heating and air as well as 21st Century learning projects at Franklin Elementary and $900,000 for LED lighting upgrades district-wide.

McDermott said the projects are expected to be completed by the end of summer 2020. The following year, he said, the district may look to start a new slate of projects.

United Township has borrowed $7 million for the $9.6 million student life renovation and addition project. Superintendent Jay Morrow said the work includes constructing a secure entrance, updating the library/media center, renovating the existing office complex and a student commons area.

Future potential UTHS projects include roof replacements and HVAC and lighting upgrades.

The new tax revenue, according to administrators, is creating real change for students and the community.

“This helps us be more competitive in the educational environment with surrounding school districts,” McDermott said. “In reality, more so, it provides a better learning environment and opportunities for the Moline-Coal Valley district.”

Rock Island-Milan chief financial officer Bob Beckwith said his district has spent $1.6 million for a secure entry at Thomas Jefferson and roofing and tuckpoint work elsewhere in the district. This summer, the district plans $2.2 million for secure entries at Edison, Washington, Earl Hanson and Horace Mann.

Rockridge Superintendent Perry Miller said his district has completed a new ceiling and LED lighting in the junior high wing. It’s also updated bathrooms at the high school and is making future plans.

“It’s nice to be able to dream and plan facilities that are conducive for student learning,” he said. “We’re still working on that, on a total five-year plan for the district.”

Riverdale Superintendent Ron Jacobs said his district has been able to climate control the high school and put a permanent surface on the parking lot between the elementary and high school buildings. Future sales tax receipts are planned to go toward secure entries renovating chemistry and biology labs a the high school.

Ticking the these long-desired projects off the list, Jacobs said, has been amazing. It gives kids better learning opportunities they would not have had with outdated facilities, he said.

“It’s really a breath of fresh air,” he said. “It allows us to keep up with many improvements that have been happening for years across the river. We compete for kids, there’s no secret about that.”

Jacobs said taxpayers should know that “none of this money is going to be spent foolishly.

“We appreciate every dollar we get, and it will help our kids and teachers in the classroom,” he said.

Here’s how other districts are using their sales tax receipts:

Carbon Cliff-Barstow: Concrete repairs and buying new cafeteria tables, a new dishwasher and a new milk cooler. In progress are drainage system repairs.

East Moline: All five school buildings were updated with new windows, LED lighting and air conditioning.

Hampton: Air conditioning work, with roof repairs planned in the future.

Sherrard: Paid off wind turbine bonds, bought a new phone system and installed new gym floor. In progress is a weight room and wrestling room addition at north end of high school.

Colona: Building maintenance and repayment of capital improvement bonds to reduce property tax burden.

Mercer County: Repaid existing health life safety bonds.

Erie: Building a locker room/restroom facility at football/field track.


Opportunities there for future electricians

Despite pay that would satisfy most appetites, Vanderbleek says there are a lot of job openings.

“We can’t find enough people at the present time,” he said. “There’s a huge demand for it.

He believes the reason is kids just don’t want to come out and do this kind of work anymore.

“When I got in the electrical trade, there was hundreds of people that applied to get in the apprenticeship,” he said of 27 years ago. “You just don’t see that as much anymore.”

But Vanderbleek sure liked it as he hopped around to several jobs last week. “It seems like there’s a lot of variety,” he said. “Every day you are doing something different. Its’s pretty interesting. I love it. Between running bucket trucks and being up in the air, 60-to-70 feet to running conduits to digging ditches, there’s something different every day.”

Vanderbleek actually got his start working nights with Tri-City Electric. He liked the people he worked with and opted to go into the field, doing his apprenticeship with Art-O-Lite in Moline. “Then, when I got done there, I ended up coming over to Tri-City,” he said.

What follows is a Q and A with Vanderbleek.

Q: Years in profession?

A: 27.

Q: Training?

A: I went through a five-year apprenticeship through the JATC, through IBEW Local 145.

Q: Pay range?

A: From apprenticehip at about $28,000 per year to over $100,000 for a longtime employee.

Q: How hard is the work?

A: We work really, really hard. Between pulling wire, running conduit, digging ditches, it’s manual labor. In the electrical field, we have a lot of mind work, where you have to do a lot of figuring of circuits and capacities and transformer sizes and conduit sizes. There’s a lot that goes into calculations what we do, a lot of math involved.

Q: How about the safety aspect?

A: The safety aspect is huge also. Between wearing harnesses, hard hats, safety glasses, you got to be careful what you are doing all the time. Electricity. You got to wear high-voltage gloves and medium voltage gloves. There’s a lot of stuff that’s involved with that. Electricity will kill you instantly.

Q: Why is this work fulfilling?

A: It’s fun to build stuff, and to see your end product is awesome.

Q: Why did you go into this 27 years ago?

A: I came out of high school and I was working part-time at Tri-City Electric at night, after school. I liked the guys worked there and I thought it would be a neat trade to go into.


Carpenter skills last a lifetime

Mark Gilmour, a local carpenter, sometimes wishes his son was as impressed with his work as he is. But the commercial builder for Allied Construction can take it in stride.

He knows he’s proud of the job he’s done for 19 years, pleased with his pay and likes the feeling he has at the end of each day.

“Absolutely,” he says regarding if he has pride knowing he’s had a hand in some of the buildings and homes he sees. “My kid doesn’t so much think so when I drive around and tell him all the stuff I’ve done. There’s almost no neighborhood I could drive through and not see something I had my hand in.”

The variety of work Gilmour has had in during nearly two decades on the job is part of what he likes most about being a union carpenter. “You do a lot of different things,” he says. And seeing what he’s had a hand in at the end of the day is satisfying. “Tangible work,” he says.

Gilmour would definitely recommend the job to anyone considering it.

“You get a professional qualified training at no cost to you,” Gilmour says. “You develop a skill set that is useful long-term. It’s a skill that will always be needed. People will always be building things.

“It’s put a lot of bread and butter on my table,” he adds. “If you are good at what you do, you will always be working.”

Just The Facts

Tri-City Building Trades & JA High School Construction Expo



Trades career expo gives teens something to think about

ROCK ISLAND — The main goal of the Junior Achievement High School Building Trades Career Expo is to open some eyes.

About 400 high school students from 16 Quad-City and vicinity high schools will attend the two-day event that concludes Friday at the Plumbers & Pipefitters Training Center on the southeast edge of Rock Island.

Students like Bettendorf senior John Eaton and Moline senior Elijah Roberson are exactly who the fair is meant for. Roberson said it opened his eyes to some opportunities about his possible future.

“I was open-minded,” he said of the attitude he brought to the expo. “I thought I was going to go into the Army and stuff. But after talking (to the trades representatives), this seems like a better opportunity. I mean we get paid for sitting here and learning stuff.”

Eaton said he learned about working in masonry, architecture, carpentry, ironworks and pipefitting.

“About a month ago, I was thinking college was maybe what I want,” he said. In many ways, Eaton’s career thoughts reflect any generation: he wanted a fun career, with good pay that would make him happy.

But getting a chance to look at various trades, even try them for a few minutes, opened his eyes to different possibilities. “I was thinking about ironworkers last week,” he said. “And now I am thinking about doing carpentry. I kind of changed my mind today.”

The expo has been going on for more than a decade, said Jerry Lack, executive director of the Tri-City Building and Construction Trades Council. His group and Junior Achievement put on the event every two years.

He said the Tri-City Building and Construction Trades Council is happy to reach out to his school students anytime it can, especially juniors and seniors, who are on the verge of making their career decision.

“Even if the high school kids are not interested, they may have a relative or neighbor or a friend that they passed the information on to,” he said. “It lets them learn more about careers in the construction trades. It gives them a better idea.”

It exposes them to other career choices besides those that require college.

“It makes me think about my career choices in the future,” said Ulrich Rush, a Moline High School sophomore. Careers that piqued his interest included working with cranes and cement masonry. “It seems interesting,” he said.

Dawson Kirst, also an MHS sophomore, admitted he was happy just to be out of school for a while. He was already considering going into a trade upon completion of high school. He learned something Thursday, too. “It’s good money for good work,” he said.

Getting students’ attention about career choices is part of the effort over the two days.

“The whole event is really to introduce career options in the building and trades to the students,” said Tawnya Hambly, senior director of marketing and special events for Junior Achievement. Trade coordinators in various areas tell the students what skills and aptitudes are needed and what they could be doing in high school to prepare for a career in a trade.

Students got a chance to do some plastering and welding Thursday.

The idea for the expo came from educators who felt most student career fairs centered on careers that required a four-year degree. “Then we heard from the business community that our workforce is starting to retire and we need to replace them with the next generation of skilled workers,” Hambly said. “So that’s where this idea came about.”

The trades expo seems to work for everybody. “The trades love it,” Hambly said. “It gives them a chance to reach out and share about the need that they have in their industry.”

The schools love it, too, she said. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids.”

Students are shocked at the pay, including that some in the trades eventually earn as much as $100,000 annually, Lack said.

Cody Mueller, who worked with students, teaching them some basic plastering, was hoping to see if any of the students liked the movements required in his trade. A third-year plasterer apprentice, Mueller wishes they had such an expo when he attended Davenport North.

“It opens them up to more than just one set trade or college,” he said.




Neither cold, nor heat cause this ironworker to retreat

Jason Caldwell remembers his start as an ironworker some 26 years ago.

He was simply looking for a construction job, ideally one with a trade. So he applied for an ironworker’s apprenticeship.

More than two decades later he does not regret it.

“I tell people all the time, there’s jobs and there’s careers,” he said. “It’s a career. It’s a job that when I come to work every day I am not one of those people that say, ‘Man, I hate coming to work.’

“Every day is a different day because we might be on a project for four to six months, but each part of that project is always a little different.”

You can easily see something new every day, he added while noting it’s often great to work outside.

Ironworkers can be found working at the IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union’s new building on River Drive in Moline, or on the new bridge, where about 100 work in things like cofferdams, which are the rectangular beams one sees sticking out of the river. Water is pumped out so ironworkers can do their work on the bridge’s foundation.

Though Caldwell considers working outside a plus, the extreme heat or cold, he admits, is a negative to the job.

Being a worker who is represented by a union is a plus, he said. Another plus is the people he works with.

“The guys and the women I work with are all excellent,” he said. “We like to stress to ourselves we are a brotherhood. As far as the ironworkers, I believe we truly are. We kind of look out for each other.”

Safety on the job has improved during his career. The top concern of contractors is employee safety, he said.

“They want to make sure that everybody comes to work everyday, with all 10 fingers and toes, and that we go home with them.”

Workers today get more special training for safety. They also use things like tie-out lifts, safety cables and aerial lifts. There’s a lot less chance of a guy working off a ladder, over-reaching and falling, he said. “If they work out of a work platform or an aerial lift, they actually have their feet on a solid surface and a hand rail all around them.”

Teamwork in terms of safety, is another positive, he said.

“You can always rely on the guy next to you when you are at work as far as being safe,” he said. “I can rely on that same guy to support his weight in the gang everyday. That’s why we like to work.”

There’s an actual shortage of ironworkers currently, Caldwell said.

About the only drawback to the work is once the building or bridge is constructed, the ironworkers’ work is hidden.

“Basically, it’s the side of the construction industry that puts up the backbone of everything, the structural seal components, the skeletons inside buildings that people never see” Caldwell said, “the rebar foundations that are underneath buildings and support everything.”