LINCOLN — Those shovels might have a few cobwebs on them.
After 15 years, give or take, construction is about to get under way on a long-anticipated second Interstate 80 exit to serve Kearney.
The project involves much more than a freeway interchange, however. A groundbreaking today will mark the start of a three-phase, $55 million construction project to build a nine-mile beltway around the east side of Kearney.
The full project won't be done until 2017. The first, $17 million phase includes:
» A 250-foot, two-lane Interstate overpass;
» A 177-foot, four-lane bridge over a branch of the Platte River; and
» A four-lane highway connecting the Interstate with Kearney's 11th Street along Cherry Avenue.
The first phase should be completed in two years.
Kearney leaders are psyched. They say they expect several hundred people to turn out for today's groundbreaking near the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument.
"It's kind of unusual to have a groundbreaking for a roads project," said Mayor Stan Clouse. "But we've waited and we've worked, and now it's our turn."
"It's been a journey," said Roger Jasnoch, director of Kearney's visitors bureau, who said discussions about the bypass already were under way when he started his Kearney career 23 years ago. (Serious planning didn't start before 1995.)
In times of tight funding, it takes a certain amount of time to develop a project of this scope. Kearney leaders spent several fruitless years trying to persuade state lawmakers to give the project higher priority because of its economic development potential.
In 2005, Sen. Ben Nelson obtained $19 million in federal earmarked funds for the project. Former Rep. Tom Osborne also helped earmark federal dollars. Kearney agreed to put up $1.5 million in keno funds and a share of its road funding from the federal government.
But then the project — planned for an environmentally sensitive area of whooping crane habitat — had to wait for completion of an environmental review. Then it was among several Nebraska roads projects to get entangled in bureaucratic red tape between the Nebraska Department of Roads and the Federal Highway Administration. Nelson intervened once more in spring 2010 to get those problems addressed.
Clouse said Kearney missed out on economic opportunities during the wait. Slots in its industrial park languished because of poor access to Interstate 80. The hospital, the airport and the National Guard transportation unit based in Kearney all have been hobbled by Kearney's traffic problems.
"We have manufacturing facilities and land available. We have good water, power and sewer rates," he said. "But anything that requires a significantly large (transportation) load is just too difficult to get through town."
For example, he said, Kearney sat out when neighboring Grand Island made its successful bid to become the new site of the Nebraska State Fair.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of missed economic opportunities is the Great Platte River Road Archway, a $60 million facility that opened in 2000 at a site just off Cherry Avenue. The site had been chosen in anticipation of the new interchange.
Its founders expected that at least 300,000 people per year would pull off to visit the attraction, a stockade-like arch stretching over the Interstate. But the closest exit is two miles west of the monument. Eastbound travelers who miss the turnoff must go 12 miles out of their way — five miles to the Minden exit and seven miles back to the Kearney exit.
Director Gary Roubicek said attendance dwindled to 56,000 by 2008. The monument defaulted on $40 million of its $60 million debt in 2002. Attendance improved to about 70,000 in 2010, thanks to efforts to expand the monument's educational and community offerings, such as programs featuring American Indian history. The monument was able to repay investors $2 million last year, he said.
He anticipates that the new interchange could increase annual visitors by a third. Although the archway still will have to renegotiate the $20 million in bonds that become due next year, Roubicek said he expects those debts to eventually be repaid, with interest.
District 4 Engineer Wesley Wahlgren of the Nebraska Department of Roads said motorists won't notice a lot of construction activity this fall. An overpass over an abandoned railroad line two miles east of the interchange site first must be removed. Fill dirt taken from that site will be used for the new interchange.
He said that for safety reasons, the Roads Department will wait until spring to establish lane crossovers and head-to-head traffic.
"We want to remind motorists to drive with caution through the area," he said.
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