LINCOLN — Jim Realph says the City of Blair had been delivering the same message to state highway officials for at least two decades.
Nebraska Highway 133, the hilly and winding two-lane highway to northwest Omaha, is one dangerous strip of concrete.
“For some reason, people have the feeling that road is straight and level,” said Realph, Blair's mayor for the past decade. “We seem to get a lot of head-on collisions out there.”
Help is on the way.
A new state law that took effect Monday promises to beef up funding for new highway construction to the tune of $65 million a year.
The inaugural projects to be funded by Legislative Bill 84, or the “Build Nebraska Act,” include widening Highway 133 into a flatter and safer four-lane freeway between Blair and Omaha.
Other first-year projects financed by the law will also help relieve traffic jams on Interstates through Omaha, build a new four-lane bypass around Wahoo on U.S. 77 and help complete a bypass road at Kearney.
Backers of the law hailed it as a monumental step in getting long-delayed highway and bridge improvement projects off the drawing board.
“We're celebrating a new beginning in highway capital improvement,” said Tyler Chicoine, a Lincoln highway contractor, at a press conference Monday.
Chicoine and other backers of LB 84 said new highway construction was at a standstill a few years ago. All available funds raised through the traditional means of funding road work — state and federal gasoline taxes, sales tax on motor vehicle sales and motor vehicle licensing fees — were being gobbled up just to maintain existing roads.
There was no money available for new highways or to widen highways. And they said raising state gas taxes was a nonstarter politically.
The problem prompted then-State Sen. Deb Fischer, the daughter of a former state roads director, to launch a study of the issue and assemble an army-like coalition of supporters that included chambers of commerce, highway contractors and city officials.
The result was LB 84, which for the first time earmarked general state tax revenue for a single purpose, highway construction.
Beginning Monday and for the next 20 years, a quarter-cent of the state's 5.5-cent sales tax will be set aside for new highways and bridges.
Sixty percent of the proceeds will go to “high priority” state highway improvement projects, with 25 percent targeted for state expressways. The remaining 15 percent is split between Nebraska cities and counties for local projects.
The measure is expected to generate $1.3 billion in new revenue over the next 20 years.
Even a critic of the original bill said it appears that the Build Nebraska Act, under current economic conditions, is a winner.
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said that while he supports highway improvements, he had opposed the bill out of concern that earmarking a specific portion of state revenue would take funds from other state priorities, such as K-12 education and social service programs.
Some opponents called it choosing “concrete” over kids.
It appears that the state can afford the earmark now that the economy has rebounded, Nordquist said Monday.
“If we see another economic downturn like we did in '09, '10 and '11, we'll have to look at it (again),” he said.
Fischer and other supporters of the Build Nebraska Act argued that highway construction was a core responsibility of government that all taxpayers — not just highway users — should shoulder.
The senator, in a letter read Monday, said it was clear to her that Nebraskans wanted better highways without a tax increase. So, LB 84 carved out a small chunk of existing tax revenue, using “existing resources,” Fischer wrote.
The passage of LB 84 was Fischer's signature achievement in the Nebraska Legislature. The Valentine-area rancher was elected last year to the U.S. Senate.
The bill gave a little bit of something to everyone, from urban areas with traffic congestion to rural areas seeking economic development. And it attempted to remove politics from the selection of projects by giving that power to the Nebraska Department of Roads based on need and safety considerations.
The Omaha area will see a trio of projects during the coming year to reduce rush-hour traffic jams and improve safety on local Interstates, according to Tim Weander, district engineer for the Omaha area.
Motorists won't see traffic disruptions until next spring, Weander said, but construction next year will provide:
» An additional westbound lane on I-80 from 24th Street to 60th Street to ease backups on I-480 and the Kennedy Freeway. That will also accommodate the five lanes of traffic coming from Iowa over the new I-80 bridge. An additional westbound exit lane will be added at the 42nd Street interchange to smooth traffic flow as part of $10 million worth of work.
» An additional eastbound lane on I-80 from the 126th Street (Cabela's) interchange to 96th Street to alleviate slowdowns and stop-and-go traffic during rush hours. The 126th Street and L Street interchanges will also be modified as part of the $10 million project, to provide longer ramps for traffic merging onto and off of eastbound I-80.
» An additional northbound lane on I-680 between West Center and West Dodge Roads. The $5 million project will widen a segment of I-680 that carries about 68,000 vehicles a day.
“These projects have been on the books for a while. Now it's a process of making them come to fruition,” Weander said.
Thanks to an unexpected grant of federal money, widening Highway 133 to four lanes has already begun just north of Nebraska Highway 36. A segment of about 4.7 miles is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2014. Work on a second segment of about 6 miles to Blair will begin after the first segment is completed.
Highway 133 is expected to be completed by 2017, improving a hazardous stretch of road that carries 8,500 to 9,400 vehicles a day. The highway has been the scene of numerous accidents, said Realph, the Blair mayor.
“I'm really happy that we finally got that underway,” he said.
The Build Nebraska Act was passed in 2011 but didn't go into effect until Monday to allow time for the Roads Department to get projects ready. The start date was also postponed because of concerns about the health of the state's economy two years ago and about whether the rest of the state budget could stand what amounted to a $65 million reduction.
Backers of LB 84, at the press conference Monday, said state tax revenues have grown by $350 million since 2011, so the state can afford to earmark the money for highways.