Nebraska lawmakers urged to act now to fund roads

| 1/12/2011

Enough is enough for a leading Nebraska state lawmaker. The chairwoman of the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee is calling on lawmakers to act now to address the state’s highway funding shortfall.

The Nebraska Department of Roads must cope with a highway funding gap that is estimated to grow to as much as $6.2 billion during the next 20 years. To help address the situation, Sen. Deb Fischer, of Valentine, has introduced a bill that relies on the existing sales tax and bonding to get road work done.

“We as a Legislature must step forward and make the commitment. … It takes long-term planning and long-term financing for government to supply an adequate transportation system for its citizens,” Fischer said in a statement.

Fischer’s plan is to take a half-cent of the state sales tax each year for the next two decades and earmark it for highway construction.

The switch wouldn’t take effect until 2013. Fischer wants to delay implementation to allow the state to recover from the recession and give the NDOR time to get projects ready.

A projected $125 million a year would be deposited into a newly created State Highway Capital Improvement Fund. The fund would benefit high-priority improvement and reconstruction projects throughout the state.

Counties and cities would get $20 million annually for local projects.

“Local governments are facing the same problems that are at the state level,” Fischer stated.

The NDOR would also be required to spend at least $15 million each year on completion of the state’s expressway system. The system is made up of four-lane highways that link midsize towns throughout the state with Interstate 80.

In addition, using bonds would be allowed for high-priority projects. Any issued bonds must have a cap of $550 million and a debt service ceiling of $25 million per year, and be issued within the first five years of the program.

Fischer said she is generally opposed to bonding. “However, I believe it is a tool that should be at the Department of Roads’ disposal if it makes good fiscal sense,” she said.

The bill – LB84 – is awaiting consideration in the Revenue Committee.

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