- Associated Press - Sunday, November 8, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska officials plan to put more emphasis on the economic benefits of roads projects when deciding which ones will get funding.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports (https://bit.ly/1NYacBB ) the new Director of the Roads Department Kyle Schneweis is changing the future projects are evaluated.

Previously, the department relied mostly on traffic counts and other standard measures when deciding which major projects to undertake.

Schneweis said a group of 19 business leaders and local officials will now help the department decide which road projects should be high priorities for the state.

“We are always trying to get better at how we pick projects and how we address our needs,” Schneweis said.

The new guidelines will affect projects with completion dates after 2022 because current plans already cover the years before then.

The schedule of maintenance for existing roads won’t change. That will still be based on the pavement’s condition.

Nebraska has a dedicated quarter-cent sales tax to help pay for roads projects. The state is due to release a new list of priorities for that money sometime next summer.

David Copple is one of the task force members and a state highway commissioner from Norfolk. He says the state needs to think about roads as vehicles for growth.

“Those of us that live in areas outside Omaha and Lincoln also recognize the need for a sophisticated transportation system so that industries in other areas of the state have the ability to transport products, equipment or whatever the case may be … on a system that adequately serves them,” Copple said.

Norfolk has two steel manufacturers and grocery wholesaler Affiliated Foods Midwest. So business leaders in Norfolk hope the state will complete the widening of U.S. 275 between Norfolk and Omaha to four lanes.

Several major highways in the state were supposed to be upgraded to four lanes as part an expressway system, but many of those projects remain only partially complete.

“I think it’s important to complete the expressway system,” Schneweis said. “I think there’s a lot of other needs, too.”

But the state also needs to make sound decisions about where to invest in roads projects. State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion said he expects the new roads task force to seek “hard numbers” on economic impact before approving projects.

“I think the economic impact is going to be as hard of a number as traffic count,” Smith said. “I’m not just talking about building something in the middle of nowhere assuming people will come.”

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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