December 16, 2015 11:59 pm • BY THE JOURNAL STAR EDITORIAL BOARD2
Journal Star editorial board
The state rules for funding highway projects are changing, with a new emphasis to be placed on economic goals when projects are selected.
The pending changes make it doubly important for communities and businesses to take advantage of opportunities to express their views on which projects should get priority.
In the past the Department of Roads has relied on traffic counts and other metrics related to transportation needs when deciding what projects should get priority.
But new State Roads Director Kyle Schneweis, appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts this year, wants economic impact to be one of the deciding factors.
For now the rules are in a state of fluidity.
Criteria are being developed with input from a 19-member Roads Innovation Task Force. Its members are business leaders, government officials and industry representatives from across the state. The task force met for the first time last month.
Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the only state senator who is a member of the task force, said members will try to come up with a way to measure economic impact with “hard numbers.” Schneweis said the task force will look at measures like job growth and domestic product.
“I think the economic impact is going to be as hard of a number as traffic count,” Schneweis said.
Adding to the flux is talk that the Ricketts administration may pursue innovative methods for funding road projects, including public-private partnerships, and possibly change bidding procedures to allow design and construction to be bid as one project, rather than seeking construction bids after the design is completed.
The new criteria would affect the next round of work funded by the 2011 Build Nebraska Act, which earmarks a quarter-cent of the state sales tax to roads. Projects with completion dates through 2022 are already set. The Roads Department plans an announcement next summer on a decade of projects with completion dates of 2023 and beyond.
One project that already has a well-organized advocacy organization is the widening of U.S. 275 to four lanes between Norfolk and Fremont. Two major steel manufacturers and the grocery wholesaler Affiliated Foods Midwest are located in Norfolk.
The looming possibility that funding for road projects may be changing in fundamental ways in Nebraska mean that community leaders should be proactive in making sure that locally important projects receive a fair hearing.
Public hearings scheduled next month from 5 to 7 p.m. are: Alliance, Jan. 12, Knight Museum & Sandhills Center, 908 Yellowstone Ave.; Lexington, Jan. 14, Lexington Public Library, 907 N. Washington St.; Columbus, Jan. 19, Holiday Inn Express & Suites, 524 E. 23rd St.; and Ashland, Jan. 21, Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, 28210 W. Park Highway.
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