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.

Updates on progress for the Heartland Expressway, a proposed regional landfill and the upcoming legislative session were among the topics for Thursday’s Western Nebraska Economic Development group meeting.

Deb Cottier, whose regular job is with Dawes County’s Northwest Nebraska Development Corporation, spoke during the Zoom meeting about what the coming legislative session might look like.

Cottier said the state’s economic development organizations are hoping to convince the state’s legislature to pass LB 720, which would provide funding capability for incentives for businesses. She encouraged WNED representatives from their various communities to express their support for the bill, which she said includes provisions that would be helpful to western Nebraska.

“Take it upon yourself to call your senator and explain to them how important it is that Nebraska has all the tools in the box that other states have, and that western Nebraska has the tools that we need to compete with those various businesses that are right on our border,” Cottier said. “We’re in a unique situation where we have three different states that we need to be concerned about — four actually — and we need the ability to access those tools as much as those folks in Omaha or Lincoln.”

With the legislature picking up where it left off when the coronavirus pandemic suspended the session in March, Cottier said it will be difficult to get any measures passed.

“If a bill did not have e priority designation, there is very little chance it will be considered,” she said. “Frankly, even some of the priority bills, if they’re not out of the first round of debate, it’s going to be tough to get all that answered.”

With the budget expected to be facing a shortfall of $325 million, Cottier said it would be difficult for lawmakers to pass any measures with any kind of a price tag to them.

Cottier, who is also a member of the Heartland Expressway committee, told the WNED group that technology will likely be used to save some time and expense. Rather than flying a delegation to Washington D.C., to meet with representatives of the states impacted by the expressway, they will attempt to use virtual meeting platforms to reach out to those officials. This year will be especially critical to reach Congressional representatives as a new transportation bill is expected to be forthcoming.

“The good news is we can spread it over a much longer time period than the two days that we try to do this when we go in person,” Cottier said. “But the tough part of it is, it’s virtual. It’s not quite the same as being there. Rest assured, we are bringing the message to our delegation as well as our partners within the alliance that transportation remains an absolutely critical piece of the economic development future for western Nebraska, and I would venture to say probably more so today than even two months ago.”

Gering mayor Tony Kaufman asked communities with an interest in participating in a proposed regional landfill to reach out as plans are being formulated for that project.

“We’re trying at this point in time to gauge interest from communities that would like to learn more about the project, and look and see if that’s something that’s feasible for them,” Kaufman said. “We’ve got quite some time before we would have to make a financial commitment. We’re still in the siting process right now, but that’s going very well.

“Probably the next step will be, at least for the initial communities that have expressed interest in the project, we would start to organize and cuss and discuss a structure of the organization that is going to ultimately operate that facility, what that organizational structure is going to look like and then move forward with that.”

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

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