LINCOLN — About a year ago, Nebraska state senators passed a gasoline tax increase over the veto of the new governor.
Tuesday, lawmakers agreed to tap the new gas tax revenue and the state’s cash reserve to pave the way for one of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ top legislative priorities this year:
They voted 43-0 to advance a $450 million, 17-year program of highway construction, county bridge repair and transportation-related economic development.
“It’s a necessary step if we want to pull our state out of a rut our critical infrastructure has fallen into,” said Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who introduced Legislative Bill 960 on behalf of the governor.
Its centerpiece: a transportation infrastructure bank, which will be used primarily to complete 132 miles of the state’s four-lane expressway system.
The bill, which advanced to the second of three rounds of debate, also would provide $40 million in matching grants for county bridge repair and $20 million for highway enhancements designed to expand existing businesses or attract new ones.
As amended, the bill is the result of a compromise between Ricketts, Smith and Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
“I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with the Legislature as we have collaborated together on the Transportation Innovation Act,” the governor said in a press release after Tuesday’s vote.
He’d first proposed transferring $150 million from the state’s rainy day fund to jump-start the infrastructure bank.
Mello and other members of the Appropriations Committee approved drawing $50 million from that reserve, but they agreed to earmark $150 million more for the program than the governor initially sought.
“It makes a very strong, loud declaration that infrastructure is critical to the state,” Mello said.
The bill sets a goal of completing the 600-mile expressway system by 2033, when the infrastructure bank is to end. To help meet the goal, the bill authorizes the use of new contracting and bidding methods that are expected to trim several years off project completion times.
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