A push by Gov. Pete Ricketts to shed Nebraska's unique distinction as the only state with a Department of Roads instead of a Department of Transportation has fans of alternative transit honking their horns in approval. 

But aviation enthusiasts worry a proposed merger with the state Department of Aeronautics could leave them grounded.

"Transportation is more than just cars," said Julie Harris of the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance, who was among a half a dozen people who spoke in support of the plan during a legislative hearing Monday.

"Crowds snicker and sad trombones play when this dubious distinction is mentioned" at national conventions, she said, calling the current name a "throwback to a very outdated perspective that makes Nebraska look out of touch."

Supporters of passenger rail and other forms of public transportation agreed.

The current name dates back to the 1930s.

What started as the State Board of Irrigation in 1895 was reorganized and renamed twice before becoming the Department of Roads and Irrigation in 1933.

"Irrigation" was dropped from the name in 1957, with the formation of the then-Department of Water Resources.

Ricketts' proposal would combine the existing departments of Roads and Aeronautics under the single-banner Department of Transportation.

"A united agency will help Nebraska take a more strategic, long-term view of our state's transportation needs," said state Roads Director Kyle Schneweis, who would lead the new agency if lawmakers approve the plan.

Aeronautics would become a division within the new department.

Schneweis said there are no immediate plans to absorb parts of other state agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Nebraska State Patrol.

And no jobs cuts are proposed right now, although Schneweis said the merger with Aeronautics would help streamline services and eliminate overhead.

He offered examples such as using Roads Department striping machines to help paint runways across the state, and having district-area highway maintenance staff help with runway preservation. That task is currently assigned to two positions with the Aeronautics Department, one of which is unfilled in part because the job requires regular travel across the state.

Roads and Aeronautics staff could also benefit from shared administration of federal aid, Schneweis told members of the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

Aviation boosters said they fear the change would be to their detriment.

Airports in other states have suffered under similar configurations, said Sandi Decker, manager of the Fairbury Municipal Airport.

"I would hate to see our very fine airport system fall to that disarray," she told committee members.

State support for Nebraska's local airports has already dwindled in the past 17 years, dropping from $2 million in 1999 to an average of $140,000 per year since 2010, said Diane Hofer, airport program leader for Olsson Associates.

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, who sponsored the legislative bill (LB339) to put the merger into law, said he will work with Transportation Committee staff to ensure "firewalls" are in place to protect aeronautics in Nebraska.

Friesen is the committee chairman, and introduced the bill on the governor's behalf.

Committee members took no action on the proposal Monday.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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