LINCOLN — Former Gov. Kay Orr launched the expressway system 28 years ago as a network of four-lane highways connecting Nebraska’s largest cities to Interstate 80.
The last of 600 miles of concrete was supposed to have been poured in 2003, but other budget priorities and a lack of road construction dollars left 132 miles of expressway unfunded.
On Thursday, Orr stood beside Gov. Pete Ricketts as he announced a $300 million plan to complete the unfinished miles by 2033.
“We knew at the time it wouldn’t be completed immediately, but had no idea it was going to take so long,” Orr said, applauding the governor and the Nebraska Legislature for making good on the state’s commitment.
High on the project list is the four-lane extension of U.S. Highway 275 from Scribner to West Point. When the $90 million extension is done, all but 30 miles of the highway between Omaha and Norfolk will have four lanes.
It was one of eight construction projects announced by Ricketts, a list that includes rebuilding segments of three Omaha-area highways.
Work on Highway 275 is scheduled to begin by 2019, and dirt will be turned on the seven other construction projects no later than 2024, said Kyle Schneweis, director of the Roads Department.
The money is part of the $450 million Transportation Innovation Act, passed this year by the Nebraska Legislature with the governor’s enthusiastic support.
Meanwhile, the remaining unfinished expressways — such as U.S. Highway 81 north of York and U.S. Highway 75 north of Nebraska City — have been slated for design by the Nebraska Department of Roads.
“While we may not be guaranteeing construction on these projects, we certainly would expect them to be very strong contenders going forward,” Schneweis said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t invest our resources in design.”
The Transportation Innovation Act derives funding from two sources: $400 million from a 6-cent per gallon increase of the gas tax approved by lawmakers in 2015 and $50 million from the state’s cash reserve fund. In addition to expressways, the act will fund county bridge repair and economic development-related transportation projects.
The Roads Department relies on another stream of construction funding from the Build Nebraska Act, passed by the Legislature in 2011. That law designates one-quarter of a cent of the state’s sales tax to highways, roads and streets. It generates about $60 million annually.
The department will use a combination of those funds to work on expressways, along with other highway construction in the next decade and beyond.
“We see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, of how we are going to complete this expressway system,” Ricketts said.
Among construction projects announced by the governor:
» Reconstruction of six lanes of I-680 between Fort Street and Irvington Road, $29 million
» Rebuilding the interchange at West Dodge Road (U.S. Highway 6) and 192nd Street, $17 million
» Adding a 3-mile northbound lane to U.S. Highway 75 near Chandler Road, $10 million
» Building a 4-mile beltway at Fremont that will provide a four-lane connection between U.S. 77 and U.S. 275, $26 million
» Widening to four lanes 18 miles of U.S. Highway 26 from Minatare to U.S. 385, $60 million
» Creating a “super two” project along U.S. 83 between McCook and North Platte, which adds a passing lane about every 5 miles to the two-lane highway, $90 million
In prioritizing the projects, the department used traditional measures such as traffic counts and accident rates. But it also considered a project’s potential economic impact, along with input obtained from Nebraskans through online comments and public meetings. About 2,000 people weighed in, Schneweis said.
State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who introduced the Transportation Innovation Act on the governor’s behalf, said he expects that some might be unhappy with the project list. But Smith said he thinks the department’s launch of the program was solid.
“You have to have a level of trust with the professionals,” he said. “I think they have done their jobs and done it very well.”
York Mayor Chuck Harris said Thursday that he was pleased to see the Highway 81 project on the design list, although he would have liked to see it ranked higher.
“We’re tickled that it’s actually on a printed list so we know where we stand,” he said.
It was “great news” for residents of West Point to learn that Highway 275 will be extended to the south side of town, Mayor Marlene Johnson said. Elected officials and business leaders in her community have been lobbying for almost a decade, only to be told that there was simply no money available to break ground.
“It’s a good feeling to finally see the project move forward,” she said.
The Highway 275 project also will use what’s called the “design-build” method, in which a single firm provides both design and construction services to trim months or possibly years off a project’s timeline. This year the Legislature authorized the approach for the first time in Nebraska, although it has been used in other states.
Leaders in all communities waiting for divided highways should celebrate Thursday’s announcement, said Josh Moenning, director of 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska, an organization that has advocated for completion of the expressway system.
“There’s a lot for Nebraska to be excited about,” he said. “It creates a playbook for finishing the expressway system.”