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US 26 road project to cost $60 million
October 07, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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A road project that will help lead toward completion of Nebraska’s section of the Heartland Expressway will soon be underway in the local area.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts stopped at the Western Nebraska Regional Airport on Oct. 4 to announce a Department of Roads project. It will convert 18 miles of U.S. 26 from Minatare to the U.S. 385 junction at Angora from two to four lanes. The estimated project cost is $60 million.

Ricketts said the state will invest $300 million for the first round of transportation construction investments to design and build 12 projects around the state. A total of 20 projects are in the works. The funding was made available by legislative passage of the Build Nebraska Act in 2011 and the Transportation Innovation Act in 2015.

“It’s important for us to have a strong transportation infrastructure,” Ricketts said. “Our largest industries are agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. A solid highway system is essential for them to expand. The state can’t be healthy if it’s only growing its infrastructure in Lincoln and Omaha.”

The governor said the Department of Roads used to prioritize road construction solely based on traffic counts and safety. But under Kyle Schneweis, the department’s new director, other factors were considered, such as public input and economic development opportunities.

“We know these projects are supported because we asked the public what we should do,” Schneweis said. “Nebraskans are a practical people who understand we need a good prioritization system. We’re trying to build a great transportation system, not just a single great project.”

The Minatare project is part of the expansion of the Heartland Expressway. The public has long stressed the importance of its completion. In public meetings with the Department of Roads, they also said the expansion to four lanes would significantly enhance safety and generate more economic development opportunities for western Nebraska.

Another area project in the design stage is a 59-mile section of U.S. 385 from Alliance to Chadron. That highway will be what is called a “”Super 2,” a two-lane roadway with paved shoulders and passing lanes every five miles. Those passing lanes would improve safety in areas where truck traffic is increasing.

Schneweis said the public indicated they would prefer a four-lane road extending to the South Dakota border, he realized that funding a Super 2 would be a big step forward toward eventually extending four lanes to South Dakota.

The state’s new road construction philosophy of completing numerous projects will rely on faster turnaround time. That component to get projects done sooner is called “design build.” In past years, Nebraska roads projects were designed over a period of a few years, then sent out to potential bidders for construction. Today, a team of designers and builders work together to complete the project in one step, dramatically cutting down the time it takes to finish a project.

Ricketts said that in its initial phases, design build would be reserved for larger projects. The first of those is a section of U.S. 275 between Scribner and West Point. Design build would later be rolled out to other projects.

“We need to make sure we have a 21st Century infrastructure so our key industries can expand,” Ricketts said. “We think these projects will help kick start that economic growth.”
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