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Sen. Ben Sasse answers a question during a panel discussion for the University of Nebraska's Charter Week Celebration as students Grace Chambers (left) and Kamryn Sannicks listen Monday at the NU Coliseum. 

South Beltway will be finished in three years instead of eight

Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Monday that Nebraska will build the Lincoln South Beltway in three years, shaving five years off the original eight-year timeline. 

Under the accelerated timetable, the state will save an estimated $25 million in total costs, the governor said.  

The state will be able to save $7 million in interest costs alone by finishing the work sooner, Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers estimated.

One year from now the state plans to be turning dirt on the $300 million project, according to Nebraska Department of Transportation Director Kyle Schneweis, who joined the governor and other officials, including Mayor Chris Beutler, at a news conference at the Capitol.

"It's the largest project we've ever done," Schneweis said, and originally had been scheduled to be constructed in five phases over eight years.  

Beutler hailed the announcement and its potential impact on jobs, growth, tourism and economic prosperity in Lincoln.  

"It will improve the quality of life in our community," the mayor said. 

The state's agreement to adopt "a creative financial tool (is) music to the ears of the city of Lincoln," Beutler said. 

The four-lane expressway south of the city will link U.S. 77 and Nebraska 2 and is designed to divert truck traffic from Nebraska 2 that now traverses through Lincoln.

Later in the day, Hilgers offered an amendment to a pending bill (LB616) he had previously introduced to speed up construction in order to conform to the new agreement during a hearing before the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. 

The newly authorized financing process would avoid the alternative of attempting to accelerate construction through the issuance of public highway bonds.

The creative financing approach will allow the state to continue to "keep the promises we have made to other communities" in terms of highway construction while completing a major project that is "long, long overdue," Schneweis said. 

"Thank you very much for figuring this out," Beutler said.

Schneweis said he expects "plenty of bids" on the accelerated project, with the prospect of some construction team efforts.

A bonus of moving up the completion date is "I'll be the first governor to drive on this," Ricketts said with a smile. 

At the committee hearing later in the day, Schneweis said the new financing process has been approved by the state attorney general. 

Supporters of the South Beltway lined up at the hearing to praise the agreement, focusing on increased safety for motorists.

Sen. Deb Fischer hailed the accelerated timeline in a statement from Washington.

"It's great to hear plans are underway to complete the project at a much faster rate and save taxpayer dollars during the process," she said.

Fischer, who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee on transportation and safety, secured a $25 million federal grant to help fund the project.

editor's pick
Property owner concerns delay council decision on 33rd and Cornhusker planning documents

The Lincoln City Council delayed any decision on the Cornhusker Highway and 33rd Street planning documents for a month to give the Planning Department time to confer with some of the businesses affected by the potential changes.

Several dozen people, representing Speedway Properties, Windstream and Virginia’s Cafe, described impacts the potential changes along the Cornhusker Highway corridor would have on them.

The council is considering adding several planning documents to the Comprehensive Plan that impact the future developments in that area of north Lincoln. 

Among those documents are four potential transportation plans — not yet final — that would eliminate three of the rail crossings along the Cornhusker Highway corridor. The plans also outline how to deal with traffic issues in the area, address flood control and aesthetics.  

A preliminary preferred plan would put a bridge over the Virginia’s Cafe property and take the property of more than a dozen other businesses.

“We own our own buildings and we never thought we’d have to defend our business from becoming a bridge,” said Tracy Von Busch, who owns Virginia’s Cafe with her husband.

Her family has concerns about the cost of moving, and whether the business could survive a move, she said during a public hearing Monday night at the council meeting.

Speedway Properties owns multiple properties in the area used for light-industrial purposes, said Michael Tavlin, with Speedway. The potential plans, including an area for mixed-use business, are incompatible with the current and future use of the properties as shown in the plans, he said.

Though city officials say the plans are tentative and the zoning hasn’t been changed, those plans will guide future developments and decisions, he said.

One of the plans shows Salt Creek Roadway running right through property that Windstream leases at 2500 State Fair Park Drive, property the company had planned to use as its primary customer service location for about three decades, said Brad Hedrick with Windstream.

Planning Director Dave Cary said the Railroad Transportation Safety District will likely have a decision on the final street alignment within six months, giving a clear idea which businesses will be impacted.

Some of the businesses, owned by several generations of local families, believe that Lincoln’s vision of the future does not include them, said Councilman Roy Christensen.

“They own the property now. They have a legacy business. This (transportation plan) is telling them in a pretty straightforward way” that the city doesn’t see them in that future vision, he said.

The city needs to stay focused on the real issue, making the rail crossings safer, said Councilwoman Jane Raybould, when the council unanimously approved a month’s delay.

A delay would give people chance to be more comfortable with a plan that people have been working on for some time, said Councilwoman Cyndi Lamm.

Journal Star file photo 

Traffic rolls to a stop on North 33rd Street as a coal train moves along the BNSF Railway tracks just south of Cornhusker Highway.

lawmakers reach deal on border wall funding

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators reached agreement Monday night to prevent a government shutdown and finance construction of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, overcoming a late-stage hang-up over immigration enforcement issues that had threatened to scuttle the talks.

Republicans were desperate to avoid another bruising shutdown. They tentatively agreed to far less money for President Donald Trump's border wall than the White House's $5.7 billion wish list, settling for a figure of nearly $1.4 billion, according to congressional aides. The funding measure is through the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The agreement means 55 miles of new fencing — constructed through existing designs such as metal slats instead of a concrete wall — but far less than the 215 miles the White House demanded in December. The fencing would be built in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

"With the government being shut down, the specter of another shutdown this close, what brought us back together I thought tonight was we didn't want that to happen" again, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

Details won't be officially released until Tuesday, but the pact came in time to alleviate any threat of a second partial government shutdown this weekend. Aides revealed the details under condition of anonymity because the agreement is tentative.

"Our staffs are just working out the details," said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

The pact also includes increases for new technologies such as advanced screening at border entry points, humanitarian aid sought by Democrats, and additional customs officers.

This weekend, Shelby pulled the plug on the talks over Democratic demands to limit immigrant detentions by federal authorities, frustrating some of his fellow negotiators, but Democrats yielded ground on that issue in a fresh round of talks Monday.

Asked if Trump would back the deal, Shelby said: "We believe from our dealings with them and the latitude they've given us, they will support it. We certainly hope so."

Trump traveled to El Paso, Texas, for a campaign-style rally Monday night focused on immigration and border issues. He has been adamant that Congress approve money for a wall along the Mexican border, though he no longer repeats his 2016 mantra that Mexico will pay for it, and he took to the stage as lawmakers back in Washington were announcing their breakthrough.

"They said that progress is being made with this committee," Trump told his audience, referring to the congressional bargainers. "Just so you know, we're building the wall anyway."

Democrats carried more leverage into the talks after besting Trump on the 35-day shutdown but showed flexibility in hopes on winning Trump's signature. After yielding on border barriers, Democrats focused on reducing funding for detention beds to curb what they see as unnecessarily harsh enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The agreement yielded curbed funding, overall, for ICE detention beds, which Democrats promised would mean the agency would hold fewer detainees than the roughly 49,000 detainees held Feb. 10, the most recent date for which figures were available. Democrats claimed the number of beds would be ratcheted down to 40,520.

But a proposal to cap at 16,500 the number of detainees caught in areas away from the border — a limit Democrats say was aimed at preventing overreach by the agency — ran into its own Republican wall.

Democrats dropped the demand in the Monday round of talks, and the mood in the Capitol improved markedly.

Trump met Monday afternoon with top advisers in the Oval Office to discuss the negotiations. He softened his rhetoric on the wall but ratcheted it up when alluding to the detention beds issue.

"We can call it anything. We'll call it barriers, we'll call it whatever they want," Trump said. "But now it turns out not only don't they want to give us money for a wall, they don't want to give us the space to detain murderers, criminals, drug dealers, human smugglers."

The recent shutdown left more than 800,000 government workers without paychecks, forced postponement of the State of the Union address and sent Trump's poll numbers tumbling. As support in his own party began to splinter, Trump surrendered after the shutdown hit 35 days, agreeing to the current temporary reopening without getting money for the wall.

The president's supporters have suggested that Trump could use executive powers to divert money from the federal budget for wall construction, though he could face challenges in Congress or the courts.

According to ICE figures, 66 percent of the nearly 159,000 immigrants it reported detaining last year were previously convicted of crimes. Reflecting the two administration's differing priorities, in 2016 under President Barack Obama, about 110,000 immigrants were detained and 86 percent had criminal records.

Few convictions that immigrants detained last year had on their records were for violent crimes. The most common were for driving while intoxicated, drugs, previous immigration convictions and traffic offenses.

The border debate got most of the attention, but it's just part of a major spending measure to fund a bevy of Cabinet departments. A collapse of the negotiations would have imperiled another upcoming round of budget talks that are required to prevent steep spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic agencies.