AP NEWS

4 Lanes 4 Nebraska pushing for expressways as transition occurs

January 11, 2019

Progress on expanding Highway 275 to four lanes has been hard to come by.

But Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning and the 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska industry coalition have reason to believe a 30-year promise will finally be fulfilled.

Although the state had projected to begin construction on Highway 275 yet this year, there’s recently been a delay, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last year it would conduct what’s known as an environmental impact study on the highway segment between Scribner and West Point. The study will delay construction for at least two years.

But that delay should not set back the entire project, Moenning said.

“When we found out about that, we (4 Lanes 4 Nebraska) started encouraging the Nebraska Department of Transportation to look at the western portion,” Moenning said. “Even if we’re hung up on environmental studies in the east, let’s get going in the west.”

Moenning said he and other leaders for 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska met with leaders from the department in December and were told the state is committed to beginning construction between Norfolk and West Point in the near future, and contractors will be selected yet this year.

The expansion of Highway 275 has been in the works since 1988 but still has never come to fruition. The recently announced delays have once again led to skepticism about the highway’s eventual completion.

“I understand Northeast Nebraskans’ frustration with this project and not seeing those promises fulfilled,” Moenning said. “I feel hopeful this time because the project is back on the state’s radar. The important part is getting started. The work we’re doing now will lead to construction in the near future.”

As the progress on the highway moves forward, 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska is also moving a different direction as Moenning, who served as its executive director, stepped down from that position in December.

“With the commitments I have (in Norfolk) and all the stuff I’m involved in, I realized I didn’t have time to travel across the state to do the work necessary for the organization,” Moenning said.

Moenning remains actively involved as a member of the board of the coalition.

Moenning’s successor is Gina Cotton, a native of Papillion with a background in development and marketing with organizations such as the American Heart Association and Tabitha Health Care Services in Lincoln.

Cotton, who will be based in Lincoln, said she decided to take up the cause of four-lane highways for Nebraskans because of the impact on traffic safety, as well as the economic benefits.

An economic study by Ernie Goss of Creighton University found that traffic fatalities are 62 percent higher in counties with the two-lane portion of the highway, including Madison, Stanton, Cuming and Dodge counties. The study said four-lane highways could reduce accidents by as much as 60 percent.

The economic benefits of completing the expressways also would be significant for both the state and Norfolk, adding a projected $145 million to the state gross domestic product and more than 1,000 jobs in the region, according to the study.

Cotton said Norfolk is burdened because it does not have a four-lane connection to Omaha and the interstate system.

“Norfolk is a great community, but not a lot of people really know about it because it’s seemingly on an island,” Cotton said.

Cotton said she has embraced her new role, and among her top priorities is making sure Highway 275 is completed in the foreseeable future.

“When we sat down with the NDOT in December, we weren’t asking about it, we were demanding it,” Cotton said. “The people have been demanding it. They want to see these projects done within their lifetime.”

Over the past few years, 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska has expanded its scope from lobbying to complete Highway 275 to expanding and modernizing highways throughout the state.

“We’ve grown to include a statewide focus on finishing the entire expressway system that was promised in 1988,” Moenning said.

If Highway 275 is completed in the near future, the next step will be upgrading Highway 81 to four lanes through the entire state. Highway 81 stretches from northern Texas to the Canadian border, and Nebraska is the only state that has two-lane portions of the highway.

Nebraska also lacks a continuous north-south four-lane route.

“We’re severely limiting our ability to grow and develop in our communities by not having this infrastructure in place,” Moenning said.

And many other highways and roads in Nebraska are still in need beyond that.

“We’re not even talking 21st century infrastructure here,” Moenning said. “We need to finish the 20th century infrastructure we were promised 30 years ago.”