State can't afford to wait to upgrade infrastructure
Over the holiday break, I took a quick trip to Minneapolis. More than the immensity of the Mall of America and the sleekness of U.S. Bank Stadium (site of this year’s Super Bowl), I came away with this: On my 5 1/2 hour drive from Norfolk, I traversed three states and drove on just one two-lane highway. It was in Nebraska.
“Why can’t we have nice things?” Essentially, that’s the question I hear again and again from Nebraskans wondering why our four-lane highway connections are so underdeveloped relative to neighboring states. Understandably so. Our inability to establish a modernized statewide system of roads holds down our quality of life, keeps communities from realizing real growth potential and puts motorists at risk.
This failure to keep up is made all the more frustrating by the fact that a plan to modernize our roads has been in place for decades but never finished. The Nebraska Expressway System, a 600-mile highway expansion program enacted into law in 1988, was designed to connect our major communities to each other and to the Interstate system. The plan was forward-looking, unifying and hopeful; it would spur economic growth, make passenger and freight travel safer and better connect rural and urban places. The only problem is it never got done. Fifteen years after that promised 15-year program, nearly one-third of it remains unfinished. Unfinished segments include U.S. Highway 275 from Norfolk to Omaha, the Lincoln South Beltway, U.S. Highway 30 from Schuyler to Fremont, U.S. Highway 81 from York to Columbus, U.S. Highway 75 from Nebraska City to Omaha and U.S. Highway 77 from Wahoo to Fremont.
Fortunately, in recent years some state leaders have acted on the urgent need to do better. In 2011, a portion of state sales tax was designated to transportation funding. In 2015, the state gas tax was modestly increased to provide new support for roads projects. In 2016, the Transportation Innovation Act created the state’s first infrastructure bank, a new resource for expressway projects, and authorized “design-build” contracting for road design and construction, saving time and money on large projects. In 2017, policy changes were made to reduce lengthy environmental review processes.
From these efforts, a new playbook was created to finish remaining expressway projects. U.S. Highway 275, the largest expressway project left undone, for example, is now slotted for construction to begin in 2019. That’s the good news. The bad news is the work is set for just half that project (Scribner to West Point).
Other new construction priorities, such as the Fremont Southeast Beltway, the U.S. 83 “Super 2” project from McCook to North Platte, further work on the Heartland Expressway and other highway expansions across the state, won’t see any work until 2024 at the earliest.
As Nebraska’s only statewide infrastructure advocacy group, 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska has worked to help prompt recent progress and will spend the next year working for more. We will work to preserve existing transportation funding and protect dollars designated for transportation from budget reductions, engage elected officials and candidates on the importance of infrastructure to economic growth and public safety and further integrate the business and industry community in the transportation policy discussion.
This is all to help prepare the way for creative, prudent solutions that provide the resources needed to get more expressway projects and new construction priorities done more quickly.
In 2018, the Nebraska Expressway System turns 30 years old. It was designed to be completed by 2003. This is the year we can start to modernize our outdated infrastructure, fulfill a long overdue promise to Nebraskans and transform Nebraska from a transportation backwater to a natural connecting place for people and commerce. We can’t afford not to.
— The writer is executive director of 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska, a business and industry coalition advocating 21st century infrastructure systems in Nebraska.