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Highway, communications experts on how the new infrastructure bill affects the Panhandle

Highway, communications experts on how the new infrastructure bill affects the Panhandle

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Nebraska will receive approximately $3 billion of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill which President Joe Biden signed into law last week. The specifics of the funding have not yet been determined, but an estimated $2.5 billion of Nebraska’s allotment will be used for road and bridge maintenance.

“I’m excited about the infrastructure bill,” Linda Grummert, the Scotts Bluff County Highway Superintendent, said. “...This will be the most major money seen since 2009.”

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus package, was passed. Its goal was to stimulate the economy after the Great Recession, and brought in more resources for the county’s roads and bridges.

However, federal money for such projects had largely ceased over the last decade. Before the recession, the federal government regularly paid around 75-80% of the cost for county renovation projects. Since then, Scotts Bluff County has instead received an annual $300,000 buyback. Half of the money can be used for bridges, and half for asphalt projects. The county has more than 200 of the former, and 162 miles of the latter.

The buyback isn’t enough to cover the county’s needs, according to Grummert. Her last box culvert project cost more than that alone.

“I would take a $2 million asphalt project in a heartbeat,” Grummert said. “In my experience, when you get federal money, it tends to be (for) larger projects.”

She said when the federal government starts a project, they want it to last.

The infrastructure money for road and bridge repair will be administered through the Nebraska Department of Transportation. It will likely be delivered based on need and geography rather than population, Grummert said. If eastern Nebraska receives more money than the Panhandle, it would be because they have more roads in need of maintenance, rather than more people.

An additional $100 million in funding will likely be used to improve the state’s broadband networks to reach thousands of additional Nebraskans. Tonya Mayer, general manager of the Hemingford-based Mobius Communications, said the bill’s funding should help improve the broadband connections for people in the Panhandle.

“The infrastructure funding will bring more opportunity to connect people in the rural areas of Nebraska that currently do not have high speed connectivity,” Mayer said in an email to the Star-Herald. “It is expensive to construct fiber networks and the dollars could mean so much to those who struggle with working from home and providing robust connection for students to have online learning capabilities.”

Final maps determining which areas will receive funding are not yet available. Mobius has constructed more than 700 miles of fiber optic network in the last decade and serves more than 3,000 customers. According to the Nebraska Democratic Party, around 33,600 people statewide do not have broadband internet access. Many of these Nebraskans would likely be in rural areas, which the Panhandle has plenty of.

“Rural areas are more expensive to construct due to the lower population counts and more difficult terrain,” Mayer said. “I do believe this could greatly impact the people in the Panhandle as well as many other underserved and unserved people in our state. We still have many who do not have a 100/100 (internet speed) connection.”

Supply chain and labor shortages could delay construction efforts, she said. They would also lead to equipment and supply prices increasing. Some electronics, she said, have been delayed anywhere from a few months to nearly two years.

The rest of Nebraska’s funding will be put toward different types of infrastructure projects. These include airport upgrades, public transportation improvements and electric vehicle charging stations.

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Reporter

Christopher Borro is a reporter at the Star-Herald. He can be reached at email at christopher.borro@starherald.com.

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