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The director of the Nebraska Department of Transportation on Monday highlighted the state's billions of dollars in highway maintenance and construction needs, Lincoln's South Beltway, the future of autonomous vehicles and the need for fiber-optic cable to communicate with Nebraska drivers.

And expanding Interstate 80 to six lanes west of Lincoln. 

Nebraska roads cover a lot of ground, and so did Director Kyle Schneweis in his annual State Highway Needs Assessment report to members of the Legislature's Appropriations and Transportation and Telecommunications committees. 

"As we offer the needs assessment this year, I can share that Nebraska has a well-maintained transportation system, capable of supporting our current transportation needs," Schneweis said. 

The state, he added, needs to spend $12.5 billion in the next 20 years on highway maintenance, roadway improvements that increase safety and mobility, and highway construction that adds capacity and supports the state's economic growth.

That includes:

* $6.4 billion to preserve pavement;

* $700 million to preserve bridges;

* $1.3 billion to correct roadway deficiencies, such as improving rural intersections based on high traffic volumes and crash histories;

* $200 million to widen bridges and remodel bridge rails;

* $3.4 billion to expand roadways, including widening the interstate to six lanes between Lincoln and Grand Island.

Apply inflation, and that need zooms to $18 billion. Responsible government, Schneweis said, means balancing the needs of the system. 

"But the fact remains true: The needs of the transportation system are outpacing the funding available," he said. 

Expanding the interstate to six lanes will be determined by traffic density. The next segment up would be a 17-mile stretch from west of Lincoln to the Seward interchange, which would require acquisition of rights-of-way, new pavement, replacement of eight overhead bridges, interchange reconstructions, grading, culverts, lighting and rest area improvements.

In 2023 dollars, it would cost $212 million.

Schneweis also highlighted needs related to technology, including cameras, message boards, traffic-control systems, and advanced investments to eventually support autonomous and connected vehicles.

The director also mentioned Lincoln's $300 million South Beltway, which has been working its way up the priority chain and has been getting close to reality. 

"We are committed. We're going to finally build the Lincoln South Beltway," he said. 

The department is finalizing the design, and will be purchasing land soon. Bids could be let late in 2019 so that construction could start in the spring of 2020.

The beltway connecting U.S. 77 and Nebraska 2 would stretch one-half mile south of Saltillo Road for about 7.5 miles. 

"It's going to greatly improve safety. It's going to get the trucks off Highway 2," he said. "It'll reduce the crashes ... it also will help improve the safety of Saltillo Road, which has been a topic of conversation."

Autonomous vehicles, an encouraging technology, are on the horizon, he said. If your car can help keep you on the road, and help you stop by recognizing dangers in front of you, that can help reduce fatal crashes.

"We have to think how the infrastructure can support those things," he said. 

It will be incremental. Cars today already have some of those safety features, he said. 

Schneweis said that, ultimately, the department pays attention to and discusses how it can stay out of the way so innovations can occur, by not overregulating while protecting public safety, and participating in its role. For example, if autonomous cars are reliant on lane markings, Nebraska must have good ones. 

There's also a need to get technology along the highway system, so communication can take place to individual cars and drivers and vice versa, like sparsely located message boards do now. Direct communication would be a lot more efficient and helpful to drivers, he said. 

Nebraska is far behind other states in installation of fiber optics along roadways, Schneweis said. 

Fiber-optic installation needs to be more sophisticated and robust, he said. And that could help support rural broadband in communities that don't have the needed internet speeds that are so important to future economic development. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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