Maybe someday, you can get there from here
Governor Pete Ricketts recently announced that a segment of the Heartland Expressway has been selected to receive an $18.3 million federal grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program.
That’s great news if you live and travel roads in Nebraska’s Panhandle, especially that hilly, curvy part of US Highway 385 from the intersection of U.S. 26 north to Alliance—a popular route for getting to South Dakota’s Black Hills.
It’s also good news for the folks in four states who have discussed the project—and seen some major segments built—over the past 30 years.
Yes, it has been 30 years since the 498-mile project connecting Limon, Colorado, with Rapid City, South Dakota, was first announced. The multi-lane divided highway has been called a $500 million project with an economic benefit of about twice that over a 38-year span.
That benefit includes increased traffic volume; businesses and jobs to provide services for those travelers; travel saving time; and accident reduction (estimated at $2.5 million) because of the improved roadway.
Ricketts touted the grant announcement as part of Nebraska’s historic commitment to build the 21st-century infrastructure system to grow the state. Combined with (then Nebraska State Senator) Deb Fischer’s Build Nebraska Act and the Nebraska Transportation Innovation Act—which he vetoed—Ricketts said the grant will help Nebraska fulfill Governor Kay Orr’s vision for expanding the state expressway system. Mrs. Orr was governor from 1987 to 1991, 27 years ago.
Enacted in 2011, the Build Nebraska Act (BNA) dedicated .25 percent of sales tax receipts for expansion of the Expressway System, federally designated High Priority Corridors, and preservation of the existing transportation system. The act calls for 85 percent of the revenue generated for Nebraska Department of Transportation projects and 15 percent for local roads and streets.
That act is to provide about $1.2 billion in its 20-year lifespan. In November 2011, NDOT announced approximately $600 million in investments to expand 17 expressway, interstate or national high priority corridors. Seven of the corridors are complete and the remaining are under construction or funded for construction and on track for completion.
The Transportation Innovation Act (TIA), enacted in 2016, provided NDOT with new revenue, programs and tools to increase mobility, freight, economic growth and safety in Nebraska.
The purpose of the act was to accelerate highway capital improvement, promote innovative solutions for deficient county bridges and help finance transportation improvements to grow businesses and jobs.
That act, passed 48-0-1 with support from Ricketts, resulted in a total allocation of $450 million for targeted infrastructure investment. The TIA legislation created the Transportation Infrastructure Bank (TIB) that received a one-time transfer of $50 million from the Cash Reserve Fund in 2016. The TIB also receives annual revenue from a fuel tax increase, which Ricketts opposed, and will generate $400 million for infrastructure investment prior to its 2033 sunset.
The segment of the Heartland Expressway selected for this recently announced grant funding would convert 14.6 miles of existing two-lane on U.S. Highway 385 to a four-lane divided highway. It is part of a series of improvements to the corridor beginning at the junction of US 385 and State Link 62A, extending north approximately 24.8 miles to Alliance.
NDOT Director Kyle Schneweis said the Heartland Expressway, the only designated expressway in the western half of the state, is essential to the movement of people and goods.
He said the grant further cements his department’s commitment to the project as the state works with partners in the Panhandle as funding pieces and construction dates are finalized.
The Heartland Expressway Corridor serves as the middle section of the Great Plains International Trade Corridor which extends from Mexico to Canada. Given its significance for trade and freight transport, it’s one of four federally designated High Priority Corridors that comprise the Ports-to-Plains Alliance.
It seems to me that completion of road projects is often slower than the pilot car that leads motorists through a two-mile patch of one-lane resurfacing on a hot summer day. This infusion of federal money and the apparent success of two state laws is truly a green light for all Nebraskans.
The feds have given NDOT until 2021 to spend the money. Let’s hope they beat the deadline.