The path to four-lane expansion of Highway 275 has been an awful lot like a trip down that highway itself: frustrating, harrowing, and full of delays. But the last few years have brought forward movement. And despite the most recent detour, there’s reason to hope that progress is leading to work that will at last finish the job.
Even though the 275 project, like others prioritized in the 1988 Nebraska Expressway program, was promised to be finished by 2003, it was abandoned and left to languish until 2015. That year, the Legislature approved a modest gas tax increase. In 2016, the Legislature created the state’s first infrastructure bank, funded by the gas tax increase, and the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) used the revenues to set a new priority list of projects that put the remaining pieces of the Expressway System either under construction or funded for construction, design, or planning work. U.S. Hwy 275 Scribner to West Point was first out of the gate and designated the state’s first design-build road project with construction scheduled for 2019.
Then came a fateful revelation this summer that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be involved, requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be completed on more than 100 acres identified as wetlands along the proposed expansion route. This development was seen to mean significant project delay; Corps officials have since indicated the EIS process could take up to two years.
Understandably, this was disheartening news for northeast Nebraskans. Another start, another stop, another delay. Still, there is belief that despite this latest obstacle, things will move forward on 275. For starters, existing political leadership, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, NDOT Director Kyle Schneweis, and Speaker Jim Scheer, drove the underlying effort to prioritize completion of 275, and by all indications their commitment to the project remains firmly in place.
Second, a coalition of Nebraska citizens and businesses will continue to remind our public officials of the state’s long overdue promise to northeast Nebrskans. 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska, a business and industry coalition engaged in transportation policy reform, remains committed to advocating for taxpayers who for decades have paid into the Expressway System but have yet to see return on their investment.
In fact, 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska recently met with NDOT officials. Director Schneweis reaffirmed NDOT’s commitment to the project and to working with Corps officials to find aggressive and innovative ways to streamline the delivery process. We were assured funding for the Scribner to West Point segment will remain available and progress on the project seen in 2019.
In the coming year, NDOT will select a design-build contractor and begin the right-of-way process. Additionally, NDOT engineers are working to satisfy the Corps EIS requirement while laying groundwork to begin construction at the earliest date possible. Perhaps most encouragingly, we learned that NDOT will soon be taking Requests for Qualifications (RFQs) for design and environmental work on the western portion of Hwy 275 – Norfolk to West Point – getting a start there while working through the environmental analysis on the eastern half.
This is big news. It means commitment to the project indeed has not shifted. It means NDOT is taking a holistic and common-sense approach to the project, enhancing its scope to get work done in areas seemingly less environmentally sensitive while creatively addressing unavoidable delays in others. It also opens the door to exploring potential federal resources to help move the project along.
As the process moves forward, it’s important that citizens stay engaged. 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska, which thrust the expressway conversation back in front of policymakers, will continue its advocacy work statewide. While I’ve stepped out of the organization’s managing director role, I remain involved as a member of its board of directors and will continue to press for completion of this project as mayor of one of the largest communities on the Hwy 275 corridor.
At the end of 2018, there’s no good reason that communities like Norfolk, Fremont, Columbus, and York – who contribute so heavily to our state’s manufacturing and agribusiness industries – aren’t interconnected with safe, efficient four-lane highway connections. Our cities and our citizens have waited patiently for decades; we deserve now the opportunity to see return on our investment. Leaving the work undone is severely hampering our ability to help grow Nebraska.
2019 will be a critical year. Although the plan on Hwy 275 may not be unfolding as initially designed, we can be confident that it is unfolding nevertheless—and that the project will move forward as long as citizens stay engaged and political leadership remains committed to finishing the job.