Norfolk gets a four-lane highway, but for now, Lincoln’s East Beltway will remain just a glimmer in the Capital City’s eye.
The long-sought, 13-mile connection between Interstate 80 and Nebraska 2 didn’t make the list of $300 million in new expressway construction projects announced Thursday by Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state Roads Department.
Yet substantial work will begin between Norfolk and Fremont to transform U.S. 275 into a full-fledged expressway, starting in 2019 when road crews turn dirt on a 25-mile stretch from Scribner to West Point.
All that new pavement will bring Nebraska closer to realizing the decades-old vision of a 600-mile expressway system crisscrossing the state, first outlined in 1988 by then-Gov. Kay Orr and Jerry Strobel, a former roads director and father of U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer.
“We knew at the time it wouldn’t be completed immediately, but had no idea it was going to take so long,” Orr said Thursday, appearing alongside Ricketts during a press conference at the Capitol.
Many hoped the expressway system would materialize by 2003. Other costs got in the way.
It took a trio of massive legislative efforts in recent years to raise the necessary money, with a new target of 2033.
* 2011’s Build Nebraska Act, championed by Fischer when she served in the Legislature, assigned one quarter-cent of the state sales tax to road construction.
* Last year’s 6-cent gas tax hike, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, passed over Ricketts’ veto and is expected to raise about $75 million a year once fully implemented.
* This year’s Transportation Innovation Act, also sponsored by Smith, earmarked revenue from the gas tax hike and allowed for new contracting methods to speed up construction and reduce costs.
Those measures will raise an estimated $1 billion over the next decade, of which Thursday’s announcements represent just a portion. Additional projects will be selected later.
“We’re looking forward to a lot more groundbreakings,” the governor said.
Although most of those won’t happen until Ricketts leaves office.
Aside from U.S. 275, which will be the state’s first highway project to use a contracting method known as design-build, actual construction on the highways announced Thursday won’t begin until 2024.
Those include a beltway connecting U.S. 77 and U.S. 275 southeast of Fremont, six-lane expansion of a mile of Interstate 680 in north Omaha, widening 18 miles of U.S. 26 to four lanes west of Scottsbluff, adding passing lanes to U.S. 83 from McCook to North Platte, and four others for a total of eight projects chosen for construction.
The Roads Department selected another 12 projects for design only. Those include the second stage of the U.S. 275 expansion, as well as expressways along U.S. 81 from York to Columbus and along U.S. 75 north of Nebraska City.
Lincoln’s East Beltway wasn’t entirely left off the Roads Department’s list. It was designated for “planning,” as was a new I-80 interchange in Sarpy County.
“I don’t think anyone expected them to fully fund the East Beltway in this first announcement,” said Kyle Fischer, public policy specialist for the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. “It’s great news to see that they value the project enough to designate some planning funds for it.”
Roads Director Kyle Schneweis didn’t attach a dollar figure to the state’s commitment to beltway planning, but said it involves “analyzing the right of ways (and) estimating the costs.”
In the meantime, the state is shouldering the $200 million cost of Lincoln’s South Beltway, a planned 11-mile freeway near Saltillo Road, that will link Nebraska 2 and U.S. 77, and provide a bypass for the crowded Nebraska 2 through south Lincoln.
Construction on the South Beltway isn’t expected to start for at least four years.
That means the newly slated Norfolk project will probably vault ahead of the South Beltway, too.
“These plans create a playbook for modern infrastructure that better connects us, enhances economic opportunities in our communities, and makes travel much safer in our state,” said Josh Moenning, a Norfolk city councilman who lobbied aggressively for the U.S. 275 project.
Norfolk secured a major victory last year when the Roads Department decided it would consider economic development goals and public input when prioritizing highway projects, not just traffic and safety data.
The northeast Nebraska city is home to two major steel manufacturers, and Texas pipe maker OCT Pipe LLC broke ground on a $125 million, 1.2 million-square-foot plant there in April.
CEO Charlie Havens told lawmakers in December the promise of a four-lane highway was key in that decision.
“I think we had all been working toward the goal of simply getting work started on this project,” Moenning said.
As for Thursday’s announcement that construction could begin as early as 2019: “That’s great news for northeast Nebraska, and I think the entire state.”
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