Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts

LINCOLN — Work could start by 2019 on projects funded by a $450 million highway construction program signed into law Monday by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

During a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol, the governor praised senators for passing one of his legislative priorities for 2016. Lawmakers voted 48-0 last week to give final approval to what’s been called the Transportation Innovation Act.

The law earmarks $50 million of the state’s cash reserve fund and about $400 million in future state gas tax revenue for expressway construction, county bridge repair and transportation-related economic development projects.

“This is something that’s going to be great for Nebraska,” Ricketts said Monday, flanked by lawmakers, local elected officials, business leaders, road builders and others who supported Legislative Bill 960.

The main component of the law creates a transportation infrastructure bank so the State Department of Roads can complete Nebraska’s 600-mile expressway system by 2033. A total of 132 expressway miles remained unfunded until the bill was passed, including stretches of U.S. Highway 275 between Omaha and Norfolk, U.S. Highways 75/34 between Omaha and Nebraska City and U.S. Highway 77 between Wahoo and Fremont.

The new law also devotes $40 million for a matching-grant program to complete county bridge repair and $20 million for transportation projects that could entice a manufacturer to expand or situate in Nebraska.

State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who introduced the roads bill on behalf of the governor, called the legislation a “capstone” to recent efforts by lawmakers to bolster roads funding. In 2011, the Legislature directed one-quarter of a cent of the state’s sales tax to go to highways, roads and streets. Last year, it passed a 6-cent increase in the gas tax to be phased in over four years.

“It’s a big day for commerce in our state, for creating jobs, allowing businesses to expand, giving a reason for businesses to locate in Nebraska,” Smith said Monday.

The gas tax measure went on the books despite the governor’s veto. On Monday, he said he still doesn’t support tax increases, including the one that has now become the foundation of his roads initiative.

“What we wanted to do as far as this bill is, since the gas tax did pass, we were going to dedicate those funds so they were working for the people of Nebraska,” Ricketts said.

The governor initially wanted to transfer $150 million from the state’s rainy day fund to kick-start the infrastructure bank. The Legislature agreed to $50 million in cash reserve funds, but lawmakers also voted to increase overall funding by $150 million more than the governor proposed.

Regulations on how the county bridge and economic development programs will work will be developed this summer, Ricketts said. The Roads Department also will decide criteria for prioritizing work on expressway projects.

West Point Mayor Marlene Johnson, who attended Monday’s bill signing, said the new law represents the most significant transportation infrastructure initiative the state has undertaken in decades. In addition to funding, the law authorizes the Roads Department to use contracting and bidding methods that are expected to trim up to four years off major highway construction.

Dirk Petersen, vice president and general manager of Nucor Steel in Norfolk, said Monday that he was impressed that the governor and senators were able to bring about passage of the bill so quickly.

“I’ve been in other states, and it doesn’t always work this way,” Petersen said. “I’d love to thank our government for working together hand-in-hand with our industry.”

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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