Northeast Nebraska officials vent frustration on delayed expressway work
Traffic flows along Interstate 80 east of exit 432 in Gretna. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Tthe Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Leaders from Norfolk, Columbus and northeast Nebraska expressed frustration Monday that a 34-year-old plan to link the state’s largest communities with four-lane expressways is still far from being completed.
The grumbling came during a public hearing on a proposal by State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk to require the Nebraska Department of Transportation to start planning and buying right-of-way for widening U.S. Highways 81 and 20.
Right now, rebuilding U.S. 81 into a four-lane highway between York and Columbus isn’t expected to begin until 2029 and not projected to be completed until fiscal year 2035-36. Originally, the state’s 600-mile expressway program was expected to be completed by 2003.
Legislative Bill 1274, Flood’s bill, would also require the state DOT to add new expressways on U.S. 81 between Norfolk and Yankton, South Dakota, and on U.S. 20 from U.S. 81 east to South Sioux City.
Columbus Sen. Mike Moser said his constituents “roll their eyes” when told how long it will take to complete the four-lane highway to link his community with Interstate 80 at York.
The final 160 miles of the 600-mile state expressway system isn’t projected to be completed until fiscal year 2040-41.
“I’d rather spend $500 million to finish the expressway than build a lake somewhere,” Moser said.
That is a reference to a proposed, seven-mile-long sandpit lake proposed by a group of state lawmakers to be built between Omaha and Lincoln to draw tourists and new residents.
Flood, who is running for Congress in eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District, said Gov. Pete Ricketts has done a good job of getting work started on finishing the planned expressway between Norfolk and Fremont.
But Flood said now is the time to begin planning and designing the other segments of expressways called for in LB 1274 to help economic development, improve safety and provide better access to Lewis and Clark Lake north of Norfolk.
While a parade of Norfolk, Columbus and northeast Nebraska officials testified in favor of LB 1274, the head of the Nebraska DOT said it would likely violate the Nebraska Constitution.
The constitution prohibits the Legislature from enacting “special” legislation to build a specific highway, according to John Selmer, the department’s director. Planning highway work is a job delegated to his department, he said.
Selmer said passing LB 1274 would also cause some projects to “leapfrog” others that were already in the pipeline. He estimated that passing the bill would divert $1 billion from projects that are already planned.
He said the DOT was well aware Nebraskans are disappointed that the expressway project has been delayed for years and years, but LB 1274 would distract from completing the project.
The Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee took no action on the bill after the public hearing.
Two committee members, Sens. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard and Joni Albrecht of Thurston, said they’d like to see action on two other expressway projects — U.S. 77 between Wahoo and Fremont and Nebraska 35 from Norfolk to Dakota City — as well as those in Flood’s bill.
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