Virginia’s Travelers Café, at 3820 Cornhusker Highway, where the french fries are made from real potatoes, peeled and cut in the kitchen, and the sausage is ground and seasoned right there, has been in the Von Busch family for three generations.
Mark Von Busch’s grandmother, Virginia Von Busch (now Keifer), bought the restaurant-motel-gas station in 1978 and turned it into a family restaurant that caters to the neighborhood and beyond in north Lincoln.
But that location is now threatened by a major street improvement project that would eliminate three of the rail crossings along the Cornhusker Highway corridor.
A bridge over Cornhusker Highway that would destroy the restaurant building is part of what has been identified as the preliminary preferred plan.
Tracy Von Busch, who met her husband when she was a teenager working at the café, has started a grassroots campaign to save Virginia’s Travelers Café and Motel, along with neighboring businesses.
The preliminary preferred plan, one of four alternatives that are still being considered, would take the property of about 15 businesses and four or five houses, Von Busch points out.
She hopes the city will pay attention to the successful small businesses that are affected by this project. “Most are small businesses and most own their own buildings and land," she said.
"We don't want the city to send the message that small business or local businesses aren't welcome," she added.
Von Busch will be at a public hearing Monday afternoon, where the City Council will consider adding the project's latest planning documents to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a routine procedure that allows the plans to become part of the city’s major planning document.
City staff point out that there are four potential plans on how to deal with traffic issues in the area, but also address flood control and aesthetics. Though one plan is labeled the preferred alternative, any of the plans — or a new combination — could become the final blueprint.
Actually, seven plans exist, said Kris Humphrey, a city engineer who is the project manager. But three are so expensive they won’t likely be considered seriously.
Von Busch wants one of the other alternatives to move into the preferred spot.
The preliminary preferred option creates what is being called a "fish hook." It would turn Adams Street north at 40th Street and send traffic up and over the railroad tracks and highway before hooking back to link with Cornhusker Highway.
The 33rd Street and Cornhusker Highway project is a large, complicated project that involves years of planning, dozens of meetings with the public and coordination among the city, state, federal government and railroad.
At the heart of the project — expected to cost between $70 million to $80 million — is a safety project, intended to eliminate the hazardous rail crossings at 33rd Street, 35th and Adams streets and 44th Street.
Even with existing safety measures in place, the existing rail crossings can create significant delays, congestion and the potential for serious conflicts between trains and vehicles, Humphrey said.
More than 20,000 vehicles combined from 33rd and Adams streets, multiplied by the 65 trains per day that move through the area, amount to a 1.3 million exposure rating, the highest in the state.
An exposure rating above 50,000 is needed for the state to start funding a grade separation structure, she said.
But the broad project, beyond the rail crossing issues, involves the city looking at the street network and the potential future land uses in the area.
Any decision on the final plan will not be made for another year or two, Humphrey said.
The Federal Highway Administration, Nebraska Department of Transportation, City of Lincoln, and the Railroad Transportation Safety District will collaborate on the final decision based on information gathered from public input, environmental analysis and preliminary engineering activities, Humphrey said.
“This is one of four preliminary plans. And what you finally see may not be any of these,” Humphrey said.
But Von Busch wants to make sure the "fish hook" plan doesn’t go any further.
Owning the building allows the family to keep prices low, plus there is supplemental income from 10 motel-type units above the restaurant that are rented by the week, Von Busch said.
The planning process for Cornhusker Highway has a long time frame. “These are marathon projects,” Humphrey said.
There will be a public meeting this spring, where people can learn about and comment on the alternatives, she said.
Future work includes an environmental study that will take another three years, final design of the project and several years of right-of-way purchase.
She doesn’t expect construction to begin until 2026 at the earliest, but more likely 2028.
Von Busch has agreed to be on the advisory group that weighs in on the project, Humphrey said.
Businesses that might be affected do have many questions, she said.
They have real-word decisions such as should they renew their lease, should they put money into the interior of a building that might be in the path of a project, should they put up a back fence, Humphrey said.
The Von Busches learned of the plan that would take the family’s building from a neighbor who attended a mid-January public meeting on the project.
The Von Busches were on vacation when that meeting took place and weren’t too worried since the earlier plans didn’t seem to seriously affect Virginia’s Café.
But once it was clear that the current preferred plan would force the family to sell the building to the city and relocate, Von Busch began talking to neighbors affected and working to keep the restaurant open in its current location.
"We believe it’s a local legend worth fighting for. We are starting a grassroots campaign to save Virginia’s Cafe and other local businesses, as well as needed affordable housing in the area," she has said.
Maps of the four alternatives for 33rd and Cornhusker, which are subject to change: