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Highway proposals draw mixed reactions in Niobrara

September 20, 2018

NIOBRARA — The Niobrara High School gym was not as full Tuesday as the last time the Nebraska Department of Transportation held a public hearing there two years ago about a proposed construction project for Highway 12 east and west of town.

But the sentiment was still as strong.

In August 2016, the roads department came to Niobrara with a proposed road construction project that would cost $215 million. And that figure was less than a previous proposal of $225 million.

The Niobrara residents would have none of it. When the public comment period for the 2016 proposal ended, it was clear it was not an acceptable solution for this small Knox County community.

Heeding public sentiment, the roads department threw it out and started from scratch.

The hearing Tuesday night offered the new state proposal for 12 to 13 miles of the highway east and west of Niobrara. The cost was considerably less, coming in at $160 million.

Three alternatives were aligned with the existing road bed — unlike earlier proposals, one of which moved the highway above the bluff and another that moved the road beneath the bluff.

In this proposal, the road bed would be elevated 10 feet and the environmental impacts of the construction created several adjustments to the construction design.

Once again Tuesday, some Niobrara residents objected. Many expressed their concerns about why a new road even was being built.

“My big question is why is the state replacing this road?” asked Tom Bartak of Santee. “I drove both sections of Highway 12 last night and I found nothing wrong with it. It’s a good road, better than most in the area.”

Bartak said he had talked to several residents and found no one who wanted a new road.

In the presentation, roads department officials cited a need for sustainability of Highway 12 into the future, ensuring its reliability and safety for travelers.

The project, tentatively scheduled for 2022 depending on approval of permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will take four to five years to complete once started. The road will be closed during construction, although detours on highways in the state system have not been mapped as of yet.

The construction will start on the 6.4 miles of the west end, lasting two years, and when finished, work will begin on the six miles on the east end, lasting another two years.

Officials are allowing additional time for follow-up and incidentals at the project end.

There were three alternatives to the new road project as proposed.

Proposal R-1 would be built on the existing road bed and elevated four to six feet. Proposal R-2 would be built south of the existing roadbed. Proposal R-3 would be built on the north side, both elevated the same four to six feet. All three comply with environmental impacts and wetland requirements expected. All three come in at about the same expense of $160 million.

The new proposal offered many obstacles, as Niobrara residents pointed out.

Many expressed concerns about the local farmers and their ability to travel to their cropland for planting, spraying and harvesting. Others expressed concern about the livelihood of the Niobrara businesses.

Still others asked about the thriving tourism industry in Knox County, and how these aspects of the Niobrara community would be affected by total closure during construction.

“Have you considered how that will affect how farmers do business?” asked Jerry McElhose of Verdigre. “Is it possible to use the existing road bed and build the road adjacent to it so traffic can continue to move through the area and farmers can get to their fields, truckers to market? We have a lot of truck traffic.”

“Tourism drives our town,” said Mark Simpson. “We lost businesses when the flood occurred in 2011 and those businesses didn’t come back. This proposal will kill us. You are messing with people’s lives.”

Simpson asked the roads department to reconsider road closure and spend a few extra dollars to add an alternative that would handle the traffic and allow the highway to remain open.

There were also others who did see a need for a new road bed and welcomed the construction of the project for future travelers, which include their children.

Written comments will be taken until Oct. 3.

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