Nebraska may need toll roads

2009-12-09T23:45:00Z Nebraska may need toll roads
December 09, 2009 11:45 pm

The Platte Institute report promoting toll roads and other alternative ways to fund transportation projects and road work should find some traction in Nebraska.

Notably one of the projects that was spotlighted in the report is the proposed South Beltway that would connect Nebraska 2 on the east and U.S. 77 on the west.

In the not so distant past officials thought the eight-mile beltway would be built by now.

Instead, the $175 million project languishes on the drawing board, a victim of dwindling funding for road projects and maintenance.

The Platte Institute report was done in cooperation with the Reason Foundation, a free market think tank. Coauthor Shirley Ybarra, a transportation analyst with the foundation, is a Northeast High School graduate and holds two degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Ybarra served as secretary of transportation for Virgina for four years. In 1995, when she was deputy transportation secretary, she wrote a law that still is considered a model on how legislators can enable and encourage public-private partnerships.

Toll roads have made huge technological advances since the days when booths seemed like road blocks that created slow-moving lines of cars and slowed traffic. Now some tolls are collected electronically. The EzPass system, for example, uses an antennae to collect account information as a vehicle passes without stopping, and then deducts the toll from the pre-paid account.

In her visit to Nebraska this week, Ybarra referred to public-private partnerships as a “tool in the toolbox,” that won’t replace traditional funding but which which can supplement it with private dollars. She said that such partnerships have become common in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

The relative familiarity of this type of partnership means that private investors are comfortable with the concept.

About half the states in the country have laws that allow the partnerships, and they have been used in scores of major projects, such as the E-470 Toll Road in Denver.

Nebraska lawmakers recognize the problem. In fact a resolution introduced this year by Sen. Deb Fischer of the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee said, “Highway funding has reached a crisis level in Nebraska.”

The committee is scheduled to release a report next week based on hearings it conducted across the state.

It’s possible that the partnerships may have drawbacks or limited appeal in a small-population state like Nebraska. But lawmakers and other elected officials have wrestled with the issue for years without making much progress.

The public-private partnerships touted by the Platte Institute are worth serious consideration in the upcoming legislative session. As Fischer said, Nebraska needs to look at all options.

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