NORFOLK — A hundred thousand truckloads of steel flow in and out of this city every year, cruising down two-lane U.S. 275 at 65 mph — sometimes faster, often slower.
Those trucks join thousands more carrying groceries from Affiliated Foods, cattle from Cuming County and grain from Scribner. And they all share the road with students from Northeast Community College and families catching flights in Omaha.
“So you can see there’s unbelievable demand for a worn out, dinky, two-lane highway,” says Dick Robinson, president of Norfolk Iron & Metal, one of two major steel manufacturers in the city.
So far, he said, the state of Nebraska is failing to address that demand despite recent steps to boost roads funding through increased fuel taxes and more sales tax dollars directed to highway projects. Combined, those efforts are expected to generate an additional $140 million a year.
But Nebraska still faces a $2 billion backlog in roadwork. And Norfolk still doesn’t have the four-lane U.S. 275 it has wanted for decades.
“We’re not even on the wish list,” said state Sen. Jim Scheer, whose district includes the Norfolk area.
Lawmakers and officials at the Nebraska Department of Roads are examining an array of options this fall that could have major implications for roads funding not only in northeast Nebraska but across the state with projects such as the Lincoln South Beltway and the Panhandle’s Heartland Expressway. Small towns and counties hope to benefit as well.
The ideas presented at a Wednesday hearing at Northeast Community College included establishing an infrastructure bank using money from the state’s cash reserve, allowing single contracting firms to design and build roads, and even revisiting bonding for highway projects.
Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes bonding for roads, and state Roads Director Kyle Schneweis said Wednesday his department is limiting its research to funding methods that don’t require a tax increase or contribute to public debt.
And the Legislature — which overrode a Ricketts veto to pass the gas tax increase this spring — isn’t looking to pick a fight.
“We’re trying to find common solutions,” said Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, which hosted Wednesday’s hearing.
Those could include:
* Revisiting how the state prioritizes the money from the 2011 Build Nebraska Act, including seeking “vast amounts of public input” on which projects are selected, Schneweis said.
The Build Nebraska Act diverts a quarter-percent of the state’s sales tax revenue to roads and is set to fund 17 projects totaling $600 million by 2023.
“There is no greater impact on the economy,” Schneweis said. “We’re going to make sure that we truly are impacting the economy in the best way we can.”
* Creating a statewide infrastructure bank, possibly using money from the cash reserve or rainy day fund, which is soon expected to reach $728.6 million.
A bill (LB626) introduced this year by Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell would have used money from the state’s general fund to establish an infrastructure bank for bridge repair. That bill has not advanced from committee.
* Allowing public-private partnerships such as design-build agreements with contractors, through which firms design the roads themselves instead of relying on the Department of Roads or another company.
“It’s something we should study,” Schneweis said. “Other states are having success. And if we can learn from them, we should.”
Thirty-three states use basic forms of public-private partnerships for roads, said Josh Moenning, executive director of 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska, one group pushing for a four-lane U.S. 275. Thirty-four states use “creative finance mechanisms” like infrastructure banks, and 48 — all but Nebraska and Wyoming — use bonding.
“Nebraska’s current transportation policies are as outdated as the 1930s two-lane highway that connects Norfolk’s steel mills and Cuming County’s feedyards,” Moenning said in prepared remarks.
Completing the state’s expressway system will cost $468 million more than is already set aside through the Build Nebraska Act, which runs through 2023. Those projects will only get more expensive, Moenning said.
“2024 is not good enough,” said Dirk Petersen, general manager of Nucor Steel in Norfolk, who serves with Robinson on the 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska board.
Traffic is slow on U.S. 275 and at times dangerous, he said. Interchanges where the road briefly widens to four lanes become “free-for-alls” as drivers jockey to pass slow-moving semis.
Norfolk is the largest Nebraska city not connected to Omaha or Interstate 80 by a four-lane highway, and that also makes it feel remote to job candidates and potential employers who visit the area, Petersen said.
“People don’t want to come to a state that feels backwards,” he said.
Petersen, Robinson and their fellow board members are ready to support bonding, public-private partnerships — whatever it takes to get their highway widened, along with the rest of the expressway system, they say.
“Let’s do something big and get something done,” Robinson said.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.
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