Counties can apply for $40 million set aside for work on Nebraska’s ailing bridges

LINCOLN — Nebraska counties will soon be able to apply for $40 million in state matching grants to repair and replace aging rural bridges.

Individual grants for each bridge under the new state program would be capped at $150,000 and counties must provide a 45 percent match, said Kyle Schneweis, director of the Nebraska Department of Roads. He accompanied Gov. Pete Ricketts in announcing the new program during a Tuesday press conference at the State Capitol.

The application period will open next month and “when the snow clears in the spring, we’re going to be building bridges,” Schneweis said.

The county bridge program is part of the $450 million Transportation Innovation Act, a major road construction initiative passed last session by the Nebraska Legislature with the governor’s support.

The act earmarks $50 million of the state’s cash reserve fund and about $400 million in future state gas tax revenue for expressway construction and transportation-related economic development projects, as well as county bridge improvement.

With 11,000 county bridges in the state, many of which are decades old and rated by inspectors as “structurally deficient,” any money for repairs and rebuilds is welcome, said Sarpy County Engineer Dennis Wilson.

The Roads Department will publish a request for proposals and a committee will score the proposals to determine which bridges qualify for grants. The scoring criteria was developed in recent months by a 12-member working group consisting of engineers from the state and counties.

Bridges must be rated as deficient, be longer than 20 feet and be located on roads classified as “local” or higher. In other words, bridges on minimum maintenance roads will not qualify.

The Transportation Innovation Act creates a transportation infrastructure bank for completion of Nebraska’s 600-mile expressway system by 2033. A total of 132 expressway miles remained unfunded when the bill was passed.

Lawmakers have been working to devote more state funding to transportation in recent years. In 2011, they directed one-quarter of a cent of the state’s sales tax to go to highways, roads and streets. Last year, they passed a 6-cent increase in the gas tax to be phased in over four years.

The gas tax measure went on the books despite the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, he said he still doesn’t support tax increases, but it’s the right decision to spend new gas tax revenue on roads and bridges.

The Roads Department has yet to decide criteria for prioritizing work on expressway projects.