- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A proposal designed to expedite work on Nebraska’s road and bridge projects drew a wide range of supporters to the Capitol on Tuesday, but some lawmakers questioned the plan to pay for it.

Members of the Appropriations Committee voiced concerns that the bill would pull $150 million from the state’s cash reserve over seven years to jump-start the program. Lawmakers have slowly rebuilt the cash reserve after the state’s 2009 budget crisis and have hesitated to use it for major expenses.

The bill by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion would create a “transportation infrastructure bank” to help finance road projects. The Nebraska Department of Roads would use the money for highway projects, a grant program to pay for county bridge repairs and road improvements that are considered likely to attract new manufacturers and retail businesses if completed. Gov. Pete Ricketts has identified the plan as one of his top priorities this year.

“Nebraska needs to move into the future and finish these projects faster and more efficiently,” said Smith, who added that the bill would save lives, create construction jobs and allow companies to spend less on vehicle maintenance.

Several senators and Department of Roads Director Kyle Schneweis noted that the agency has yet not identified specific projects.

“It is disconcerting to me that we’re asking for a significant piece of that cash reserve without a really clear picture about what that payoff is,” said Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell.

Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said she couldn’t fully assess the proposal without seeing the expected economic benefits, which the department didn’t provide. “It’s a little bit of a leap of faith,” she said.

Sen. Tanya Cook of Omaha noted that the bill relies on continued federal highway funding, which has shrunk as a share of the state’s overall roads budget. Without the federal money, she said, the state likely wouldn’t have enough to finish the projects that are chosen.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, has said he supports the bill’s concept but doesn’t want to use the cash reserve, which will hold an estimated $729 million by June 30. It’s generally used for emergencies and one-time expenses.

Schneweis noted that the concept of the bill gained widespread support during a series of transportation hearings throughout the state. The proposal also doesn’t raise taxes, he said.

Residents around Norfolk, York, Scottsbluff and Chadron are all advocating for the bill because of unfinished highway projects in their areas.

Scottsbluff City Manager Rick Kuckkahn said western Nebraska is competing with Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming for businesses, and finishing the Heartland Expressway would give the region an edge. The project has languished for years because of a lack of funding.

“There is no other project or issue in western Nebraska that even comes close,” he said.

Lawmakers in May approved a 6-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase, raising the total state tax to 31.6 cents per gallon by 2019. The tax will eventually generate an extra $25 million annually for the state and $51 million for cities and counties.

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The bill is LB960

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