- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska officials say the state’s upcoming fuel tax increase will help replace old bridges, repave county roads and allow work on construction projects to start earlier.

The 6-cent-per-gallon increase approved by lawmakers last week won’t start phasing in until Jan. 1, but state and local officials say they already have a rough idea of which projects will take priority.

County officials said they plan to focus on structurally deficient bridges, many of must support farm equipment, school buses and other large vehicles. City officials are likely to use the money for road and bridge repairs, while the state Department of Roads said its share could help officials start work sooner on longer-term projects.

The tax will generate roughly $75 million annually by 2020, divided evenly among cities, counties and the state. Lawmakers approved the measure last week over Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto. Ricketts, a Republican, argued that raising the tax to 31.6 cents per gallon over four years contradicts the public’s desire for tax relief.

Pawnee County spends about $500,000 a year upgrading its bridges and culverts but isn’t catching up on the backlog, said county commissioner Dennis Schaardt.

Schaardt said many county bridges can only sustain four to five tons, while many trucks can weigh 20 tons. Some constituents at a local coffee shop complained about the tax increase, but Schaardt said the need is too great to ignore.

“It’s costing more to replace these structures and to make them big enough to handle the modern equipment,” he said. “With this added money, we just hope to hit some of the most critical projects.”

West Point Mayor Marlene Johnson said state Highway 275 through her city has seen increased traffic as more businesses locate in the region, raising safety concerns. Johnson said many residents in the area would like to see the road expanded to four lanes to accommodate the growth.

“Nothing’s going to happen tomorrow, but anything that can be done to improve our highways, I’m definitely going to support,” she said.

The additional money will allow the Nebraska Department of Roads to start work sooner on some resurfacing and bridge projects starting in 2016.

“We’ll look at our budget to see how many of these highway projects we can address, and when,” said Moe Jamshidi, the department’s acting director. “Obviously, when we have more funds, we can bring more (projects) into the picture.”

Nebraska’s share of Federal Highway Trust money has fallen faster than the national average in the five-year period that ended in 2013, the last year for which numbers were available. Funding from the federal fuel tax has declined for most states as vehicles became more efficient and motorists cut back on driving.

Nebraska has more than 100,000 miles of roads and 20,000 bridges, mostly owned by counties and cities. Roughly 10,000 miles of road and 3,500 bridges belong to the state. Last year, the Department of Roads identified $10.2 billion in projects it says are needed over the next 20 years.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the bill’s sponsor, said the committee he chairs plans to look this summer at how the fuel tax money is divided. The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee will travel to study whether some needs are greater than others.

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