Nebraska could get a jump on about $16.1 billion worth of highway needs over the next two decades if state lawmakers approve measures that will be proposed next year, officials say.
The measures would use money already available to the state and could “fast forward” future highway projects by as much as five years, state Roads Director Kyle Schneweis told a legislative panel Thursday.
That includes $1.5 billion in highway construction that isn’t budgeted but is still considered necessary by the state, such as Lincoln’s East Beltway, a new Interstate 80/180 interchange and widening U.S. 275 to four lanes east of Norfolk.
“We think they’re needs,” Schneweis said.
One concept would pull as much as $150 million from the state’s cash reserve to start a pair of “infrastructure banks” for highway construction and to repair structurally deficient bridges, said state Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Gas tax money would then be used to continually replenish the infrastructure banks for use on additional projects.
Another proposal would allow the Roads Department to change how it does business with contractors and engineers, bidding entire design and construction projects at once instead of seeking builders after the design work is complete.
Both ideas have encountered broad support but also skepticism about how they will be enacted.
Lawmakers “need to be very cautious” about taking money from the cash reserve, said Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Legislature’s budget-building Appropriations Committee.
“I can’t see it being anything more than $25 million,” Mello said.
The state faces a projected budget shortfall of $132 million next year, as well as a $26 million request from the state’s prison system to add a women’s unit at the Lincoln Community Corrections Center — both items that will probably require money from the cash reserve.
Smith said his idea would still leave about a half-billion dollars in the state’s rainy day fund.
“Senator Mello is doing his job … but that doesn’t mean the discussion is over,” Smith said.
Mello also noted that the Roads Department requested $40 million this year from the Legislature to build a new headquarters but was denied. He said there’s little to prevent the department from using an infrastructure bank to pay for that headquarters or to offset the cost.
Meanwhile, small engineering consultants and contractors opposed changing the state’s bidding process for road work, testifying Thursday at the state Capitol during a pair of hearings.
“It just can’t be good for local engineers and local contractors,” said Chris Lane of Speece Lewis Engineers in Lincoln, which gets about 95 percent of its business from county bridge and road work.
Those groups are also on edge about the state’s apparent interest in “bundling” bridge work from different counties.
Pennsylvania is doing something similar, packaging 558 bridge projects into one agreement with a single contractor and 11 subcontractors who will design and build the bridges over four years, then maintain them for another 25 years.
Schneweis said the scope of that project is beyond what Nebraska would consider, but Lane still fears big construction companies would reap the benefits at the expense of smaller firms.
“They just need to get the dollars to the counties and let them spend it,” he said.
Richard Schmeling, a lobbyist for groups that support mass transit, said the state needs to get more creative with how it funds roads projects.
He suggested making the planned Lincoln South Beltway a toll road or, jokingly, using traffic cones to block one lane of I-80 for Husker home football games and charge $5 for people to drive there.
The state could build an expressway “from Angus to Ong” — two small Nebraska towns — but lawmakers also need to think more broadly about transportation, he said.
“A transportation committee, seems to me, needs to be about something other than just roads,” he said.
Others were eager for anything that would potentially speed up roads projects in the state.
For OTC Pipe, a Texas-based pipe manufacturer, the promise of a four-lane highway was key in the company’s recent decision to build a 1 million-square-foot facility in Norfolk.
While only about 15 to 20 percent of its products are moved over the road, with the rest by rail, CEO Charlie Havens said changes in the railroad industry could easily force the company to use trucks instead.
“We’re not used to two-lane highways to put those 18-wheelers down,” he said.
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