Work begins on Neb. roadwork paid with sales tax

6/23/2013 8:30 AM
By Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Two years after Nebraska lawmakers approved a controversial highway funding bill, state officials are starting work on long-delayed projects around Omaha, Kearney, and more than a dozen other cities over the next decade.

The state Department of Roads has six projects that are either underway or scheduled to start within the next year, and 11 others through the year 2023. Officials had delayed work on several due to a lack of funding, said department spokeswoman Mary Jo Oie.

The 2011 law by then-state Sen. Deb Fischer commits about $70 million a year for state and local roads, accelerating work on projects for which money wasn't available.

It dedicates one-quarter of a cent out of Nebraska's 5.5-cent sales tax for state road upgrades, as well as maintenance for counties and cities. Of the money set aside for roads, 85 percent will go toward state highway upgrades and 15 percent will get distributed to cities and counties.

Officials in Blair have waited for years on upgrades to Nebraska Highway 133, which connects the city with Omaha about 25 miles to the south. Crews are starting work this year on a new four-lane, divided roadway with surfacing, drainage structures, frontage roads and utilities.

Assistant city administrator Phil Green said traffic along the highway has increased in recent decades with the addition of a nearby Cargill plant and a facility for Novozyme, a Danish biotech firm that produces enzymes required for ethanol production. Green said that, without the state sales-tax money, the project would have continued to languish.

"There's a lot more traffic now, heading in both directions," Green said. "Ten to 15 years ago, Blair was a little bit more of a bedroom community, but now the traffic flow is closer to 50-50, in both directions."

Traffic along the Washington County road is expected to increase from nearly 8,500 vehicles per day in 2011 to more than 12,800 in 2035, according to the Department of Roads.

The state will set aside the money annually over a 20-year period, starting in July. The law departs from Nebraska's decades-old practice of using revenue from gas taxes and motor vehicle fees to pay for roads.

Supporters argued that the legislation was important to upgrade the state's road network and spur economic growth, while opponents in the Legislature warned that it could prove unaffordable over the long term and draw money out of health care, education and public safety.

The Roads Department has said Nebraska needs to spend $9.2 billion over the next 20 years to keep state highways in good shape — a figure that could climb to $13.2 billion with inflation.

Three of the first six projects are taking place around Omaha.

Crews are also planning to expand the heavily traveled Interstate 680 in Omaha to relieve rush-hour traffic congestion, said Marvin Lech, a construction engineer for the Roads Department's district office in Omaha. Construction on the one-lane road expansion is slated to begin in 2014.

The department is also planning upgrades along two stretches of Interstate 80 in Omaha, between 96th and 126th streets, and the westbound lanes between I-480 and 60th Street.

In Kearney, officials are beginning work on a bypass that will loop around the northeastern edge of the city, in part to ease traffic pressure. Portions of the existing Highway 10, a main road through Kearney, will be relinquished to the city and Buffalo County.

Roadwork is also scheduled on roads around Lincoln, Fremont, Wahoo, Plattsmouth, Bellevue, Nebraska City, Hastings, Alliance, and Grand Island.

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