Last September, city fathers in Dubuque, Iowa, lured three members of the White House cabinet to the banks of the Mississippi River on the same day they welcomed officials from one the world’s biggest corporations, IBM. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, accompanied by a host of aides, all climbed aboard the city’s green trolley car. Among their stops: Dubuque’s renovated harbor area, and then the historic millwork district — once the nation’s largest — and the nearby Roshek building, a depression-era department store undergoing a grand remodel.
Meanwhile, Dubuque’s private sector guest, IBM, was over at the convention center announcing plans to make the city a living laboratory for its Smarter Planet program. Up to 1,300 new IBM employees will begin fielding tech service calls later this year at the Roshek building, and the company hopes those workers will also be able to enjoy the fruits of a sweeping partnership between IBM and its host city — a partnership aimed at creating an integrated transportation system involving smart new bus routes, pedestrian-friendly streets, and arterial roads to take trucks out of neighborhoods.
It sounds positively idyllic, but there is, of course, a catch. In order to begin turning this vision into a reality, Dubuque wants a federal investment of $50 million. The economic returns would be 50 to one, officials maintain. And while that’s impressive, federal transportation policy has rarely been geared to reward such things, let alone Dubuque’s partnerships among local and state government and the business community. Instead, the process of seizing federal transportation dollars has often been a political free-for-all, with some of the biggest fights in Washington, D.C.