- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts will ask lawmakers to pass a new infrastructure package this year to accelerate long-delayed construction work on bridges and roads.

Ricketts announced his support Thursday for a comprehensive roads bill that will be introduced in the Legislature next week and said he will advocate for it in his annual State of the State address.

The proposal would create a transportation infrastructure bank, financed with $150 million over seven years from the state’s cash reserve fund. State officials would use the money for highway projects, a county bridge matching grant program and infrastructure to attract new businesses.

“We need to grow Nebraska, and of course our infrastructure is vital to that,” Ricketts said at a Capitol news conference, flanked by lawmakers and community leaders.

The effort is likely to face some resistance, though, because it would draw money from the cash reserve - an emergency fund that is traditionally used for one-time expenses and budget shortfalls. This year, the state faces a projected $110 million shortfall that lawmakers and Ricketts will have to fill to balance the budget.

The bill is a result of legislative hearings around the state that explored new ways to finance road projects, as well as a review by the Department of Roads’ new director. Lawmakers heard from local residents and officials “very directly that we need to accelerate the completion of our expressways and repair deficient bridges,” said Sen. Jim Smith, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he supports the concept of an infrastructure bank but opposes using the cash reserve to pay for it. By June 30, the reserve is expected to reach nearly $729 million, which Ricketts argues is too large.

“This would earmark the state’s cash reserve for seven years - and we don’t even know what’s going to happen with the economy in two or three years,” Mello said.

Money distributed from the infrastructure bank for projects would be returned to the Department of Roads using the state fuel tax.

The legislation also would shorten the time required for expensive and complex road projects. Current law requires the Department of Roads to complete projects in separate design, bidding and building phases that can take seven to 12 years. The bill would allow the department to hire one contractor to design and build a project, reducing a project’s time to two to four years.

Nebraska Department of Roads Director Kyle Schneweis said the proposal draws from various road-financing programs used throughout the country.

“We have tried to find the pieces that are working, bring them to Nebraska and right-size them for us,” he said.

Community leaders in different parts of the state have advocated for a new approach to roads projects because of repeated delays.

A coalition dubbed “4 Lanes 4 Nebraska” is pushing for the expansion of a 45-mile stretch of Highway 275 in eastern Nebraska, between Norfolk and Fremont. The project is one of the last unfinished pieces of a 600-mile expressway system that the state made a priority in 1988.

In the Nebraska Panhandle, cities and counties are lobbying for the expansion or roughly 150 miles of the Heartland Expressway, a major thoroughfare for truckers and tourists heading to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.

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.

Another recent law, the 2011 Build Nebraska Act, diverts roughly $70 million a year in state sales-tax revenue into roads projects. One bill introduced in the Legislature this year seeks to repeal the law.

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