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No specifics yet, but federal infrastructure bill could have widespread impact in Nebraska

No specifics yet, but federal infrastructure bill could have widespread impact in Nebraska

LINCOLN — Faster progress toward completing long-awaited expressways. A boost for county bridge repairs. High-speed broadband reaching more corners of the state. Help to expand and improve Eppley Airfield.

Electric vehicle charging stations dotted along the length of Interstate 80. Six Interstate lanes from Omaha to Kearney. Public transportation outside the boundaries of Omaha.

Better protection against floods. More storm-resistant transmission lines. Reconnecting historic North Omaha neighborhoods that were split by the Interstate.

Nebraska leaders have long lists of hopes and ideas for the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law last week. But state and local officials have few specifics yet about what projects may get funded and how soon Nebraska will start to see money coming in. There’s also uncertainty about how much constraint the shortages of workers and supplies will put on projects.

The infrastructure bill is separate from the Build Back Better bill, a larger package of social spending and climate programs that passed the House on Friday on a near-party-line vote and now heads to the Senate, where its future is uncertain.

The infrastructure bill, by contrast, won bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. Nebraska U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer and 2nd District Rep. Don Bacon were among the Republicans who voted for the measure. The state’s other three congressional members, all Republicans, voted against the bill.

Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, hailed passage of the infrastructure legislation, calling it “really an important bill” for Nebraska.

Flooding covers Colfax County Road C south of Schuyler (copy)

Floodwaters from the Platte River wash over Colfax County Road C south of Schuyler in February 2021. The bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law this month is expected to provide $2.5 billion for roads in Nebraska. Officials have yet to identify specific projects.

“This is true infrastructure, this is supply side infrastructure, which is going to create greater economic competitiveness for our core industries in Nebraska,” he said. “This gives us the ability to think about projects that otherwise we would never have the ability to think about from a funding standpoint.”

David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, said the measure has been long awaited. The bill represents $550 billion of new money added to previous levels of spending.

It represents the largest sustained federal investment in infrastructure in at least four decades, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institute.

“For years and years and years, we’ve known that there’s been a deficit in spending on infrastructure,” Brown said. “We’re looking forward to the infusion of cash that will help get this infrastructure built and will help grow prosperity across the state of Nebraska and specifically for us in the Omaha region.”

State Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, the chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, expressed some concerns about the bill, although he said the state should not turn down the federal money.

“If we can help local governments with infrastructure, it could help with property taxes,” he said.

But he said state and local officials need to get answers to a number of questions before they can decide the best ways to use the money. They will have to find out the qualifications for various programs, when the money becomes available, how long the money lasts and more.

The bill includes numerous programs, with varied mechanisms for distributing money to states.

Some, like the additional federal highway aid, will be distributed based on formulas. Among those, Nebraska is expected to get $2.5 billion of new money to maintain and repair roads and highways, along with at least $100 million to expand broadband coverage and $30 million to expand the network of electric vehicle charging stations.

Other programs offer competitive grants, such as the $12.5 billion available nationally for economically significant bridges or the $8 billion available nationally to expand public transit services to new communities. There’s also $1 billion available specifically for projects designed to reconnect communities that were split by roads and bridges.

Many of the programs emphasize climate change mitigation, building in resilience against disasters like flooding, equity for minority and low-income groups. The transportation programs also focus on safety for all users, including cyclists and pedestrians.

Nebraska officials also need to get a handle on what industries can accomplish, given current difficulties in finding workers and the disruptions in supply chains, Friesen said. He’s hearing from companies working on existing broadband expansion projects that they are looking for more crews and are waiting months to get fiber orders filled.

“What concerns me is we have focused a lot of resources on a specific problem, but it doesn’t mean we can get it done quicker,” he said.

Katie Wilson, executive director of Associated General Contractors Nebraska, said the increased federal funding will provide more stability for businesses, allowing them to look longer term and invest more in training workers.

She said contractors are looking forward to the work that will be generated by the infrastructure bill, although she doesn’t expect projects funded by the bill will start before next year at the earliest. Major projects, such as expanding the expressway system, typically require years of planning and design.

However, she said contractors are hopeful about a provision of the bill aimed at streamlining the environmental approval process for large projects. Wilson said former President Donald Trump made the change by executive order; Biden reversed the change. The infrastructure bill made the Trump version into law, one of several non-monetary provisions included in the bill.

So far, state and local officials contacted by The World-Herald say they are studying the bill and do not have specifics yet about possible projects. A spokeswoman said the Department of Transportation “is currently assessing the legislation to understand its impact on future investment in Nebraska’s infrastructure.”

But Wilson said state transportation officials have told contractors that “they’ve got a boatload of projects stacked up.”

“It’s a huge bill. It’ll be good for the country,” she said.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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