Northeast highway expansion proposed

A bill to encourage highway expansion through additional state funding was heard by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee Jan. 31.

Sen. Michael Flood
Sen. Michael Flood

LB1274, introduced by Norfolk Sen. Michael Flood, would state legislative intent to appropriate funds to the state Department of Transportation to plan, design and purchase rights of way for portions of U.S. Highway 81, including stretches from York to Columbus and Norfolk to the South Dakota border, as well as Nebraska Highway 20 from U.S. Highway 81 to the Iowa border.

The bill’s stated intent is to provide four-lane continuity, connect urban centers with a population of 15,000 or more to Interstate 80 and to add routes with daily traffic of 500 or more heavy commercial vehicles.

Flood said the Legislature can assist in growing the state’s population by finishing the expressway system, originally authorized by lawmakers in 1988.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to finish the expressway system, [to] help grow Nebraska, to serve agriculture and to promote tourism,” Flood said. “With the recreational opportunities available in northern Knox County, this is a chance to bring young people home [and] to reach out to others and say: ‘this is the place to be.’”

According to the bill’s fiscal note, the department estimates a total cost of $100 million to implement the measure’s provisions.

Sue Crawford testified in support of LB1274 on behalf of the city of York and the York County Development Corporation. Making U.S. 81 into a four-lane highway should be a priority, Crawford said, because doing so would pull traffic to that area of Nebraska rather than Iowa.

“Right now, if someone is coming from the south, they are driving over to [and up] I-29 and all of the sales of gas, meals, hotels and all of the sales tax is going to Iowa,” Crawford said.

Benjamin Benton, Randolph city administrator, also spoke in support of LB1274. The bill, he said, would greatly improve economic development in the town of Randolph and northeast Nebraska.

“When people are looking to relocate their family or their business or their lives to northeast Nebraska, transportation truly is the major factor [in] their decision,” Benton said. “So let’s bring them home by passing LB1274 and funding the northeast Nebraska expressway.”

Also testifying in favor of the bill was Austen Hagood, president and CEO of the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce. U.S. 81 not only is a manufacturing corridor, he said, but has become one of the most dangerous roads in the state.

“As Nebraskans, we can appreciate the fiscal conservatism that’s led to a robust … economy, but now is the time to live up to the promise made in the 80s,” Hagood said. “It’s important for business, for growth and for the safety of northeast Nebraskans.”

John Selmer, director of the state Department of Transportation, testified in opposition to LB1274. Selmer said that NDOT has completed over 70 percent of the identified expressway system with approximately 160 miles left to go. The bill would allow projects to move ahead of others already set in motion by the department, he said.

“NDOT is well aware of the disappointment many feel regarding the speed or lack thereof of the expressway system completion,” Selmer said. “We feel it would be unwise to begin directing NDOT away from this goal of completing the expressway and toward the expansion of highway segments which are not part of the expressway system.” 

The committee took no immediate action on the bill. 

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