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The Elbert Files: Shaky bridges


If my father were alive, he would not be happy with a recent report showing Iowa’s bridges are among the worst in the nation, with more than 60% in “fair” or “poor” condition. 

Willis Elbert retired in 1985 from a 39-year career at the Iowa Department of Transportation. He was a materials inspector for much of his career and made sure there were no flaws in the steel spans that hold up highway bridges. He also checked the nuts, bolts and other materials, including concrete mix, used in road construction to assure they were up to snuff. Occasionally, he would hang over the sides of tall bridges to check for cracks in the undercarriage.  

Dad was a darned good mechanic and proud of the fact that he helped build the highway industry’s first slipform paver in 1949. You see descendants of that machine every time you drive by a highway construction site and spot a big yellow piece of equipment into which concrete is poured, shaken and formed into traffic lanes. 

The original paver was designed by Jimmy Johnson, an engineer at what was then called the Iowa Highway Commission. Dad and another mechanic, Rudy Schroeder, hand-manufactured many of the parts and made sure they all worked in unison.


When Dad retired, I was asked to give a speech. Mom encouraged me to “lighten things up” and “don’t be afraid to make fun of your father.”

At the time, my duties at the Des Moines Register included writing the Iowa Poll, which gave me access to more than four decades of polling data.

As I leafed through the old poll books, I found evidence that despite my father’s nearly 40 years at the DOT, Iowans were less pleased with state roads in 1985 than they were when he started. 

Dad and his buddies got a chuckle out of that.

But I don’t think he’d be laughing today. Not when a recent survey by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association found Iowa has the most bridges of any state (4,571) in poor condition and the second-highest percentage (19.1%) categorized as “poor.” 

Play for pay


The question of whether college athletes can earn money off their own names, images and likenesses (NIL), even as coaches and schools make unconscionable sums, has pushed college athletics into uncharted territory.

Earlier this year, when Iowa lawmakers decided to hold off on passing an NIL law, it looked like waiting might be the smart thing to do. The presumption was that either the NCAA or Congress would approve nationwide rules that would allow college athletes to earn outside endorsement money and place all schools on an even playing field in terms of the incentives they could offer student athletes. 

I’m writing this during the final week of June, and there is still time for that to happen before July 1, when new laws in several states kick in allowing student athletes to earn NIL compensation.


You, however, are reading this more than a week after the July 1 deadline.

If either the NCAA or Congress stepped up and did something substantive, I’m wasting your time, and I apologize. *

But I’m betting neither did and now the situation is more confusing than ever with at least a dozen states, including Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 and Nebraska and Maryland in the Big 10, having laws that allow new compensation for athletes. 

If that’s the case, Iowa lawmakers have three options.

They can do nothing and concede the advantage to conference rivals at a time when college sports are more important than ever.

They can also call a special session of the Legislature and admit that they messed up when they didn’t address NIL legislation earlier this year.

Or they can piggyback NIL legislation onto the special session they expect to hold sometime this fall to deal with redistricting, once they receive new data from the 2020 census.

* Editor’s note: Neither the NCAA or Congress ended up taking action by the July 1 deadline as Elbert presumed.

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