Biden administration touts $1.2 billion sent to Nebraska via infrastructure law

Ricketts spokeswoman said that more than half is existing spending

By: - November 16, 2022 5:45 am

The Biden administration on Tuesday highlighted $1.2 million in infrastructure funds for Nebraska, including $774 million earmarked for highway projects and $90 million for bridges in 2022 and 2023. (Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — A couple of years back, the McCool Junction Public Schools was able to get a federal grant to obtain a propane-powered school bus to replace an aging vehicle.

Now, the school district south of York is in line to get a $395,000 federal grant to buy an electric bus and electric charging station through the federal infrastructure bill passed a year ago.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced that so far, Nebraska has received $1.2 billion from the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.

Buses, levees, cheaper internet

The funds include not only electric buses for six rural school districts, but also repairs of levees damaged by the floods of 2019, replacement of dozens of substandard bridges and funds to lower internet bills for 58,000 households in Nebraska.

“Trump and the Republicans talked about infrastructure but never did anything,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “President Biden and Democrats delivered.”

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer
U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-NE. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Support for the bill split Nebraska’s all-Republican congressional delegation.

Fischer, Bacon supported bill

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, whose father directed the Nebraska Department of Roads, voted in favor of the infrastructure bill, as did U.S. Rep. Don Bacon.

“I voted for the infrastructure bill because it’s an investment in the future of our state,” Fischer said in a statement Tuesday.

She noted that because of the infrastructure bill, Nebraska saw a 21% increase in funding for roads and bridges in fiscal year 2021-22 over 2020-21.

Voting against the package were U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse and U.S. Reps. Adrian Smith and Jeff Fortenberry.

At the time, Smith told NTV News that he opposed the bill because it didn’t focus on traditional infrastructure needs and was more about electric vehicles and charging stations.

U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith
U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb.
(courtesy of Office of Rep. Smith)

“These bills spend too much, tax too much and put an extreme left-wing agenda over getting Americans back to work and solving our supply chain crisis,” Smith tweeted a year ago.

Constituent support

Bacon, meanwhile, said he voted with 69% of his Omaha-area district’s constituents in supporting the bill.

Of the $1.2 billion highlighted by the Biden administration in a press release Tuesday, $774 million was earmarked for highway projects and $90 million for bridges in 2022 and 2023.

The state is projected to receive $2.2 billion over five years for highways and bridges alone, a White House press release said Tuesday.

Biggest building spree since New Deal

The Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said that the infrastructure bill, and the budget reconciliation bill of 2021, would represent the largest federal “building spree” since the New Deal.

But it pointed out that only about $550 million in the infrastructure bill was new spending.

Alex Reuss, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, also said that most of the infrastructure spending is through existing programs, so the investments touted by the new law might be oversold.

Six districts picked for electric buses

McCool Junction schools was one of six rural Nebraska school districts awarded electric buses, joining Hay Springs, Hershey, Raymond Central, Southern and Summerland.

Dade McDonald, superintendent at McCool Junction, said the district’s school board is still trying to decide whether to accept the bus. He said there are as-yet unanswered questions about the lifespan of such buses, the longevity of batteries and how they might perform in a Nebraska winter.

“There’s some things we’re obviously curious about,” McDonald said. “We’re still getting some questions answered.”

The district’s propane-powered bus, he said, “fired right up” during frigid weather last winter, while the district’s five diesel buses did not. So, McDonald asked, how would an electric bus perform?

$5,000 savings a year

One rural school district with electric bus experience, Knox County in northeast Missouri, has reported that it has saved $5,000 a year per bus, including a 60% reduction in maintenance costs. That district, on its website, projected a lifespan of 15 years per bus and a range of 100 to 155 miles per charge.

With high diesel prices, saving money would be important for McCool Junction, McDonald said, where there’s an ongoing goal of keeping property taxes as reasonable as possible.

Here’s some other highlighted uses of the infrastructure funds:

  • Nebraska will receive at least $100 million to help ensure high-speed internet coverage across the state. About 58,000 households have accessed the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides up to $30 a month to help pay internet bills ($75 for households on tribal lands), and grants up to $100 to purchase a laptop or notebook computer.
  • $75 million has been announced for Nebraska to provide clean and safe water, including $46 million for lead pipe and service line replacements.
  • $90 million has been allocated to make electric service more resilient to extreme weather and cyberattacks, including $68 million for levee repairs in the Missouri River basin.
  • $1.3 million for repairs to Gavins Point Dam for damage from the 2019 flood.
  • $30 million over five years to expand electric vehicle charging stations. mostly along Interstate 80.
  • $20 million for a new terminal drop-off area and canopy at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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