Report: Nebraska Road System Could Fall Into Disrepair

Sat January 16, 2010 - Midwest Edition
Nate Jenkins - ASSOCIATED PRESS

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Nebraska’s highway system will fall into disrepair and not be expanded unless officials are able to create a new funding plan for roads, according to a report recently released.

Crafted by the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, the blunt, 60-page report said the state’s heavy reliance on the fuel tax to generate dollars for highways has created a “fiscal crisis,” as revenue from the tax has begun to decline partly because people are driving less and using more fuel-efficient cars.

The legislative committee does not offer recommendations but outlines 31 tax and fee hikes Nebraskans suggested during a series of public hearings.

“Our roads are good nationally in safety rankings,” said state Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine, chairwoman of the legislative committee. “That’s not going to last” if something isn’t done.

Nebraska had the seventh-most cost effective, efficient highway system in the country in 2007, according to a separate report released by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank. The group examined congestion, pavement condition, fatalities, deficient bridges and total spending, among other things.

But once the current pool of federal-stimulus dollars for road work dries up, the state Department of Roads expects Nebraska will have about $90 million less for road construction than it did during the time period that garnered Nebraska the high national ranking.

At the same time, construction costs are rising.

The legislative report pegs the total cost of highway construction needs at $13 billion over the next two decades and said Nebraska may only be able to cover about $6.4 billion.

“This means a stagnant construction program,” the report said.

A fix to the problem isn’t expected anytime soon.

Lawmakers are bracing for a lot of penny-pinching when they gather in early January for the 60-day session. It comes on the heels of an emergency legislative session that ended late November. Lawmakers and Gov. Dave Heineman slashed $334 million from the two-year budget to address lower-than-expected tax revenues.

Fischer said she won’t introduce a major roads’-funding bill until 2011 and that she was heartened by the response the committee got from people across the state during a series of public hearings.

“People know there’s a crisis and they’re willing to pay for it,” she said.

Among the suggestions offered by people and outlined in the legislative report: raising the fuel tax; increasing the vehicle-registration fee; applying the motor-vehicle tax to older cars that are now exempt; a per-mile tax so revenue is generated from electric cars whose users don’t pay fuel tax; and an additional fee on oversized or overweight commercial vehicles.