As Union Pacific marks its 150th anniversary, the railroad's museum is looking to make a little history itself.
If the Friends of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum can get 500 people — each paying an extra $70 fee — on board, it will become the second organization in Nebraska to get its own license plate since a new specialty plate law went into effect last year.
The Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles already has approved the design submitted by the nonprofit group, which supports the Council Bluffs museum. Created by a U.P. graphic designer, the plates feature a yellow U.P. engine pulling a train along an agricultural landscape, with a hazy outline of the Omaha skyline in the background. White lettering at the bottom reads: Union Pacific Railroad Museum.
The museum won't receive any money from the plate fees. It all goes to the DMV and the State Highway Trust Fund. But both the railroad and the museum see the plates as a way for people to show they're part of a community interested in a company that has played a significant role in the development of Nebraska — and the rest of the country.
"There are a lot of railroad enthusiasts in Nebraska, and this will give them a way to show their pride," said U.P. spokesman Mark Davis.
Before the plates start turning up on the road, the Friends of the Museum will need to follow the guidelines set by state legislators in 2010.
Until then, drivers had limited options for license plates. Unless they fell into specific categories for which plates were offered — Pearl Harbor veterans, ex-prisoners of war, amateur radio operators, among them — the only other specialty option was the Husker Spirit plate. The Husker plate, which was created with its own legislative action in 1997, can be found on more than 9,300 vehicles in Nebraska.
That's unlike many states, which offer dozens, even hundreds of specialty plates. Virginia offers more than 200 — drivers can even get Virginia plates for out-of-state institutions, like the University of Michigan or Georgia Tech. Colorado's options include an Italian-American plate, a plate that encourages people to "Adopt a greyhound" and a plate sponsored by the Raptor Education Foundation.
In Iowa, there's a long list of options, from Ducks Unlimited to motorcycle rider education. Seventeen private colleges and universities have their own plates, plus Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa.
Nebraska lawmakers discussed the issue for years and finally opted to start their own program in 2010. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 2011.
So far, however, the response has been slow.
Only one organization has gathered enough support to get its own plate: Creighton University. There are just over 900 of those plates on the road.
Beverly Neth, director of the Nebraska DMV, said a handful of other organizations have expressed interest, submitted plate designs and started trying to gather the required 500 people who would need to pay for their plates before the state would start making them.
Nonprofit groups also have to submit financial information to prove they are in good standing.
The first to get approval was the Shriners, but they haven't been able to make the initial 500-plate requirement. Donate Life, the organ donation group, also has been approved and is accepting applications, as are the Girl Scouts.
Everyone who gets a specialty plate will pay $70 annually in addition to all regular taxes and fees. There's also a one-time plate production fee of $6.60. The letters and numbers on the plate cannot be personalized.
The people at U.P. are confident that they'll be able to get 500 people to sign up — without even having to go outside of the company.
Employees will be offered the chance to sign up beginning today and organizers plan to submit their paperwork and $35,000 check on Feb. 29. Once that's done, it will be offered to the public and could be available as soon as a month later.
U.P. has nearly 8,000 employees in Nebraska, including 4,300 in Douglas County. The next-largest contingent is Lincoln County, with 2,500 employees. Most of them work at Bailey Yard in North Platte, which is the world's largest rail yard.
And beyond the current employees, there are hundreds of retirees and plenty of serious railroad fans, said Carl Heinrich, board president for the Friends of the Museum. Many volunteer at the museum. Some collect railroad souvenirs and photos and calendars. Some carefully log miles they've traveled by train.
A license plate, Heinrich said, will be a public way to show off their interest.
"I think a lot of people will be proud to wear it on their car," he said.
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