Nebraska has a long tradition of investing in infrastructure to help connect our communities and grow our state. Whether you are taking your kids to school or moving farm equipment from field to field, infrastructure helps us get there. Our central location makes Nebraska’s infrastructure critically important not just for the people in our state, but for the whole nation. As a major connection between the east and west coasts, our infrastructure carries many of the goods that are used around the world.
Over the years, our investments in infrastructure have helped Nebraska earn national recognition. The Reason Foundation rates Nebraska’s state highways fourth best in the nation for overall performance and cost-effectiveness. U.S. News and World Report ranks Nebraska 12th in the nation for road quality. The last few years, we have been launching new initiatives to build on these strengths by making new investments in our roads and bridges, consolidating state agencies, and cutting red tape.
In 2016, the Legislature and I worked together to pass and enact the Transportation Innovation Act (TIA). This initiative is investing $450 million to help complete the state’s expressway system, repair county bridges, and deliver infrastructure projects supporting economic development. In 1988, then-Governor Kay Orr laid out a vision for an expressway system to connect the state’s major communities. Over the years, several segments of the system, including some supporting our rural communities, were never built or funded. Thanks to the TIA, along with Senator Deb Fischer’s Build Nebraska Act, we are finally working toward fulfilling Governor Orr’s vision for expanding our state’s expressway system and connecting our rural and urban communities.
In addition to the TIA, we have also worked to direct more resources to local government to support investment in infrastructure. Our Federal Funds Purchase Program allows the Nebraska Department of Transportation (DOT) to purchase federal funds granted to counties and first-class cities with state funds. Those state dollars have fewer restrictions and allow local agencies greater flexibility without navigating the complicated federal regulatory framework. Previously, DOT purchased each dollar of federal funds with 80 cents of state highway funds, for an exchange rate of 80 percent. Now, we are using a new purchase rate of 90 percent, which is helping turn back an additional $3 million annually in infrastructure funding to local government.
Last year, Senator Curt Friesen of Henderson and I teamed up on LB 339, which created the Nebraska Department of Transportation by merging the Department of Roads and the Department of Aeronautics. Previously, Nebraska was the only state in the nation without a DOT. By merging, we are taking a long-term, more strategic view toward building the 21st-century infrastructure we need to grow Nebraska. As we identify ways to run our operations more efficiently, we are reinvesting in roads and runways.
Cutting red tape has also been key to keeping Nebraska on the forefront of infrastructure innovation. We have modernized our roads standards, and in doing so, we are giving counties more flexibility in replacing infrastructure. Before these updates, the state had placed expensive requirements on local governments that wanted to update their bridges. Updates to our minimum design standards are now allowing counties to replace existing bridge pilings with pilings of the same design, rather than investing in a new bridge built under new construction design standards at increased cost to taxpayers.
DOT has two other initiatives aimed at delivering projects more efficiently. Previously, the delivery process on complex projects could take 7-12 years from start to finish. The TIA authorized the use of a shorter Design-Build process for the most complex projects to reduce the completion timeframe by 2-4 years. Additionally, we are currently working to finalize an agreement with the federal government to allow the state to conduct environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act instead of federal agencies. These federal reviews have a history of being lengthy and cumbersome, and under state leadership, we believe we can do the same job in a more timely fashion. With these tools in hand, we hope to reduce the headache of extended periods of road construction.
This week, DOT Director Kyle Schneweis and I will be traveling Nebraska to launch new projects and highlight the work we are doing to deliver quality infrastructure in a timely manner. Together, we will continue to deliver the infrastructure our communities and families need to keep growing the Good Life. If you have thoughts to share on the future of Nebraska’s infrastructure, we want to hear from you. Please call my office at 402-471-2244 or email me at [email protected]