The season of orange cones: Omaha crews ramp up road work after slow start

The road widening project on 144th Street near Blondo has closed down one side of 144th and has directed traffic to the other side, causing traffic tie-ups. The project is one of dozens taking place around the metro area this summer.

Nearly every day, Jack Angus faces a new, patience-testing challenge: How will he navigate his way out of the Nelson Creek development today?

“It provides some mental exercise,” he joked. “Every day you have to figure out how to get out of here and back.”

Angus' neighborhood has a front-row seat to one of Omaha's biggest street projects this year: a two-phase, $8.5 million widening of traffic-choked 144th Street near Blondo. As a result, road closures are common and detours are in constant flux, leaving drivers to find their way through a maze of orange cones and barricades.

Welcome to prime-time construction season in the Omaha area.

Some smaller projects still a big headache

In addition to the major street projects underway, a number of smaller maintenance or water-main repair projects are leading to closings or restrictions, said Tim O'Bryan, a construction engineer for the Omaha Public Works Department:

Cass Street: Restricted to one eastbound and one westbound lane from about 85th Street west to West Dodge Road. Will remain head-to-head for four more weeks while Metropolitan Utilities District crews install a new water main. The break occurred almost two weeks ago.

Maple Street-Northwest Radial: Miscellaneous work remains on an intersection project. Completion anticipated in the next three to four weeks, depending on weather. Sodding and seeding will be done in September, which will require one- or two-day lane restrictions.

Blondo Street: Shut from 73rd to 75th Streets for water-main repairs. The main broke last week, damaging and undermining large stretches of the street. A storm sewer pipe system and manhole also must be replaced. Depending on the weather, work is to be completed in about four weeks. Engineers say Blondo Street will remain shut through the middle or the end of next week before one lane will open in each direction.

Douglas Street: Two eastbound lanes from 30th to 24th Streets are closed for grinding and resurfacing work.

Pacific Street: Down from four lanes to two around 107th Street for a bridge-widening project. Also, lane restrictions in place from 103rd Street to 93rd Avenue and from 67th Street to 60th Street for improvement work.

Jay Withrow

The 144th Street widening is just one of dozens of widening, paving and streetscape projects contractors are tackling. The Omaha Public Works Department counted nearly 50 road projects during July alone.

A wet spring led to a slow start for road work, but the dry summer and the recent infusion of $6.4 million in state resurfacing funds for the City of Omaha has crews ramping up construction.

“I'm the only guy in town that likes a drought,” Omaha construction engineer Tim O'Bryan said.

The City of Omaha spends $30million to $35 million annually on street improvements and maintenance. The amount and the number of projects tend to stay the same each year, Omaha Public Works Director Bob Stubbe said.

But the roads budget is on pace to eclipse that amount this year, mainly because of the extra state road maintenance funds made available to Omaha and other cities after bids for state highway projects came in below budget.

“We had no idea when we put together the 2013 budget that we were going to get these kinds of dollars from the state, because we typically get $400,000 a year for resurfacing,” Stubbe said.

The money must be used this year primarily to resurface state highways crossing through Omaha. Twenty-five lane miles were resurfaced last year; this year, the city is aiming to finish 110 miles.

“Now we can add additional segments we weren't originally anticipating to do this year,” Stubbe said. “There's no question we're doing more than we would normally do.”

And that means area drivers could find themselves confronting more traffic, road closures and delays as construction crews hurry to wrap up projects before winter hits and the state funds run out.

Besides the widening at 144th, other significant ongoing and coming projects include:

» Reconfiguring the intersection at Spring Lake Drive, F Street and 16th Street.

» Resurfacing southbound 72nd Street from Military Avenue to Blondo Street, a project that started last week.

» Widening 96th Street from Park Drive to Harrison Street.

» Adding turn lanes at 84th and L Streets.

Starting last week, drivers on Dodge Street started encountering closed lanes between 50th and 52nd Streets because of a sidewalk project that will continue through August. Another estimated $5.2 million repaving project that will affect Dodge Street and other busy roads like Maple Street, Cuming Street and L Street went out to bid last week and will use a large chunk of the newly available state funds.

Nearing completion is the $2.5 million Dundee streetscape project, which started in April and is adding improved curbs, landscaping and parking to Underwood Avenue.

Employees at area businesses admitted that the project has been a headache at times. Blocked sidewalks, torn-up streets and even less on-street parking than usual scared some customers away at the beginning, Dundee Dell bartender Adam DeFord said.

“As of right now, I think people are kind of used to it,” he said. “It's still a little confusing where you can park down here, but we've turned a corner, business is back up and it's almost done here.”

Even Angus said the construction at 144th and Blondo wasn't worthy of too much grumbling.

“They seem to be making good progress, and these things don't happen overnight,” he said.

The project includes an incentive bonus for contractor TAB Construction to finish the project ahead of schedule, something the city often ties into road projects that include extended lane closures or affect heavily trafficked areas.

Greg Imes, who lives in the Autumn Heights subdivision off Blondo Street, said crews seem to be ahead of schedule.

“It's not so bad. They're actually doing a good job,” he said. “Though I have seen a few confused people going down the wrong lanes.”

His biggest complaint? The mounds of dirt that blow into the neighborhood, coating cars, driveways and sidewalks with a thin layer of orange dust.

Major ongoing projects outside the city include the Highway 370 widening in Gretna, where crews are also adding and resurfacing roads leading into the new Nebraska Crossing outlet mall. In June, Gretna approved $1.35million in construction bonds for the retail project, which is slated to open in November.

Gretna City Administrator Jeff Kooistra said crews are under the gun to finish the $17.5million Highway 370 project, which will turn the two-lane highway into a divided four-lane road. The new lanes are scheduled to fully open Sept. 1. The two-year construction project has led to numerous road closures around the busy highway.

“Hopefully they'll get most of the streets open before school starts, and boy, are they going to have to hurry,” Kooistra said. “We'd hope they'd have all the lanes open, but I don't know if they'll make it.”

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