Heartland Expressway likely to see some expansion during 2021

Highway 71 rolls through the Wildcat Hills between Scottsbluff and Kimball. Officials are working to extend the four-lane highway network between Minatare and Alliance.

A representative of the Heartland Expressway Association says there are plans to continue the highway project in the coming years.

Deb Cottier, whose regular job is with Dawes County’s Northwest Nebraska Development Corporation, told the Western Nebraska Economic Development group Thursday that the expressway is expected to see some expansion likely in 2021. Bids will be let in August for an extended section of four-lane road on U.S. Highway 385 south of Alliance to the L62A junction, commonly referred to as the “Bayard turnoff.”

Funds set aside beginning about six years ago from a portion of sales tax designated for highway use have been used to build a 10-mile section of four-lane highway from Alliance south on U.S. Highway 385. The next phase of expansion would extend the four-lane portion of that highway another 14.2 miles from the L62A junction to meet up with the existing four-lane portion.

The next section to be addressed would be an 18-mile section of L62A from Minatare to the junction sometime after 2023. That project would use federal funds for the $60 million project.

“That includes a huge, sweeping turn from 385 west,” Cottier said. “That has been engineered. They’re now in the process of starting to look at right-of-way acquisition on that L62A leg that goes past Bayard and hooks up at Minatare. We expect that will be a little difficult because there’s a couple of ditches you have to pass, there are significant businesses and ranches that are very close to the highway there, so that right-of-way acquisition is going to be a little tougher. However, they have been planning ahead far enough that people ought to at least know this is coming.”

If the L62A portion can be completed by 2029, then the state will look at improvements on Highway 385 north of Alliance to Chadron and the South Dakota border to make that stretch a “Super two” highway with passing lanes, broader shoulders and flattening of some curves and hills without actually building two more lanes.

“The last word we heard from both Doug Hoevet, who is the district engineer, as well as folks from Lincoln and Doug Leafgreen, the highway commissioner, is that that is still on the planning process,” Cottier said. “They will not commit to when that might happen because it is not in an area where there is enough traffic volume to really push the issue, but as an organization, our goal remains the same to have a four-lane divided highway all the way and we’re probably not going to give up until it happens.”

The Heartland Expressway began 25 years ago as a group hoping to bring a four-lane highway system from the Colorado border to the South Dakota border in the Panhandle. The Heartland Expressway would be a portion of a greater Ports-to-Plains highway system from Mexico to Canada. Cottier said the scope of the project has turned it into a “lifetime project.”

“We started looking at the benefit of having better access in the Scottsbluff/Gering area in particular to the Front Range of Colorado,” Cottier said. “There was some work done to make that highway better move people and freight and jobs and business and economies to and from Colorado. The four-lane highway system was sort of born out of discussions with South Dakota and with Colorado about moving freight north and south in an area where there is no north-south Interstate.”

In the early days, there were “demonstration funds” available from Congress where congressional representatives could essentially designate or “earmark” projects for funding. Those funds no longer exist, slowing the methods of funding. In the 1990s, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill that would require all communities with a population of 25,000 or more to have four-lane access to an Interstate highway, however those funds dried up in the early 2000s as well and the project stalled.

“Essentially, the four-lane portion from Kimball to Scottsbluff was the first piece that was what the Legislature guaranteed would happen, and people thought, ‘Well, we’re done,’” Cottier said. “Well, the folks that live north of there and are between the four lane of Scottsbluff and South Dakota continued to work and continued to enjoy a relationship with the folks here in Scottsbluff and Gering to try to help move that along.”

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Reporter

Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at mark.mccarthy@starherald.com.

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