Although Fremont has considered a viaduct over the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway tracks at 23rd Street for decades, the proposed project still appears to be years away from completion.
In 2008, voters approved spending up to $2.9 million in bonds toward the city’s share of its construction. But delays at the local, state and federal levels have held up the project. Meanwhile, cost estimates have ballooned from about $11 million to $30 million.
In 2016, the Fremont City Council voted 8-0 to deny a request to construct the overpass at the Fremont and Elkhorn Valley Railroad and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (FEVR/BNSF) railroad crossing on 23rd Street. That decision placed a halt on a more than $55,000 environmental assessment needed to move forward with final construction of the proposed overpass.
Since 2004, the projected viaduct has been in its planning phases, with the City of Fremont investing around $1.5 million into design planning and corresponding phases.
The project’s primary goal is to alleviate the inconvenience daily commuters face with the railroad tracks, and the delay that first responders face during emergency situations.
“We often had rescue squads that couldn’t get across, and police officers responding to calls,” Shelly Holzerland, director of the city and county’s Joint Communications Center told the Tribune in 2018. “If (the train’s) moving fast, sometimes they wait. If it’s stopped, then they have to find a way around.”
According to Mayor Scott Getzschman, initial design work on the project back in 2008 was slowed and ultimately aged-out due to delays at the federal level regarding funding and approval of environmental assessments.
“The design process was at about 45 percent complete in that 2007-2008 timeframe and we had a change of presidency and a new administration came in and that project got lost on a desk in Washington D.C.,” he said. “So for three or four years, we were getting excuse after excuse about where it was at federally and what was going on.”
In 2012, the city secured a new engineering firm CM2H Hill to restart work on the design phase.
“They came in and began redesign and they have the project right now,” Getzschman said.
In a 2016 Tribune report, then City Council President Scott Schaller stated the budget would not allow for the project.
“We are already $1.5 million into the project, and we have come to the realization that the city share is going to be around $21 million — $30 million total on the project,” Schaller said back in 2016. “And when people voted in 2008 that was to approve the city to issue a bond for $2-$2.9 million. At that point in time, that is what the city’s share was going to be – the total project was going to be $9-$11 million.”
Schaller added: “With that being said, we could take out a $3 million bond and we would still be on the hook for $18 million, and there’s absolutely no way – that’s my personal opinion – that there is room in our budget for that.”
Citing cost, the council then voted unanimously to deny the request to construct the overpass.
The dramatic cost increase over the past decade wasn't the only factor as to why the project was held up.
One sticking point, according to Getzschman, is a railroad requirement that would cause the closing of the Linden Avenue crossing if the viaduct were to be built.
“Because you are working with the railroad it actually required the closing of one crossing or you had to build a walkway over those tracks,” he said. “A walkway over the tracks is estimated at about $7 million of the overall project cost—and so that has added to some of the frustration.”
Getzschman also said that a new wrinkle in the cost-benefit analysis of building the viaduct is the U.S. Highway 30 Schuyler to Fremont Expressway project.
“That provides a different routing for traffic to come in and around Fremont, so less people will be coming through that intersection,” he said. “So we will honestly have to begin looking at do we have the traffic to warrant going through that process.”
While all of those issues will have to be considered by City Council and the public-at-large, indications are that the viaduct project could start to move forward by mid-2019.
In 2018, City Administrator Brian Newton told the Tribune that the project was still in state and federal environmental review and that it could be early to mid-2019 before the project gets a necessary environmental study. At that point, the city will hold a public meeting and collect public comments that are incorporated into the report.
When the final report is finished, the City Council will decide on whether the city will move forward with a final design or not, Newton said at the time.
Getzschman offered a similar timeline during a recent interview with the Tribune.
“We are sitting right now in 2019 where we were in 2007,” he said. “We are at a point where it’s in the final stages of environmental assessment. There will be one more public hearing and at that point it will come back to council to decide if they want to find a way to pay for it.”
“It’s a difficult complicated subject that council will again get to address probably in 2019 and at the latest 2020.”
While voters approved up to $2.9 million in bonds back in 2008, those bonds have never been issued but would be if the council would vote to fund the project, according to Getzschman.
"The money is available if the project moves forward," he said.
If the project moves through the environmental assessment, the State of Nebraska would then provide a revised price estimate which would come before the City Council for final approval or denial.
"If they were to decide not to (allocate funding), the overall design is still good for a few more years but typically the cost would go higher the longer you delay," Getzschman said.
While questions still surround the proposed viaduct, the city did seek to address the issue by way of a train monitoring system which was implemented last year.
The system monitors the railroad crossings at North Somers Avenue, West 23rd Street, West Linden Avenue and West Military Avenue, all on the west side of town.
The public can access the monitoring system at the web address https://rr.fremontne.gov/railmonitor. There, a map informs residents of crossings that may be blocked or if a train is approaching. When a train is coming, the alert is accompanied by an estimate for how long it will take the train to pass.
The program, designed by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, was envisioned as a way for first responders and dispatchers to navigate the city’s busy train traffic, ensuring that emergency responders can plan the best route to avoid being blocked while responding to an emergency.
“It’s been a great solution as far as a short term fix,” Getzschman said.