July 25, 2009

Heartland Expressway woes

Our affection for Nebraska is rekindled each fall when the Cornhusker football team takes to the gridiron. We always enjoy our visits to the state -- ranging from family gatherings in the panhandle to observing sandhill crane migrations along the Platte River in the fall. One of our hobbies is adding information to Whitney Reflections, a website that chronicles the history of a tiny panhandle community. Nebraska was – and is – a great place to grow up. A good place to live.

So it’s been with considerable disappointment that we’ve watched Nebraska government foul up the Heartland Expressway project. That’s the four-lane highway that’s been long planned to connect Rapid City, South Dakota with Denver, Colorado via the Nebraska panhandle. The project is an integral part of the Great Plains International Trade Corridor, a proposed four-lane artery which will connect the metropolitan cities and regional trade centers of the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico.

Our first clue to the Cornhusker confusion was understandable quibbling over a route for the expressway. Even the citizens of Crawford, Nebraska – which is smack dab in the middle of the route that the expressway probably should take – seem resigned to the fact that the expressway will by-pass them.

By-pass surgery is the least of the problems facing the Heartland Expressway. It appears Governor Dave Heineman and the Department of Roads are about to do a transplant and leave out a few important arteries. Heineman says that instead of a four-lane roadway, portions of the expressway in Nebraska will probably have to be downgraded to a “super two-lane” highway. Say what?

There are those who contend that if the Heartland Expressway were closer to Lincoln and Omaha, it would already be done. I doubt it, but I understand the regional cynicism that permeates the panhandle. Western Nebraska has long been a mere afterthought in Lincoln. State officials point out that the state is sparsely populated, and it may simply not be able to afford to complete the project as planned.

Sparsely populated? Hmmm. Sounds like South Dakota – and yet…

In the nearly five years we’ve lived in Spearfish, we’ve watched the South Dakota portion (SH-79 & US-385)) of the Heartland move ahead without much difficulty or fanfare. It is complete from Rapid City to Hot Springs, and we now observe lots of work taking place between Hot Springs and Oelrichs.

The Chadron Record reports that the Nebraska Departent of Roads has released its construction plans for fiscal year 2010. “The 487 million budget includes $162 million of federal stimulus funds but has little Heartland Expressway work scheduled.”

So if all of this foot dragging concerns you, perhaps you’ll want to be in Gering on Wednesday, August 5th, when government workers from the Federal Highway Administration and the Nebraska Department of Roads conduct a meeting. A department spokesman says they “could” discuss the Heartland Expressway, as well as other area projects.

But don’t plan on attending the meeting. We’re told it’s a closed session.

The Chadron Record and other media report that the August 5th gathering in Gering will be "closed to the public." While officials may hide behind an interpretation of the Nebraska Open Meetings Act that might accommodate a self-serving closed session, it’s hard to imagine that the public will be well served by such a ploy. That meeting should be open to the public.

There is occasionally good reason for closing a meeting of public officials -- but we doubt that this is one of them. Public workers using public funds driven by public policies to complete a public project. But not open to the public?

Perhaps Governor Heineman can give a good reason why he won't attend (he earlier said he would, but then said he had a "scheduling conflict") -- and, more importantly -- why the session will be conducted behind closed doors.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you live west of Grand Island, you don't matter ... sad, but true.