LINCOLN — Nearly four years ago, Mayor Chris Beutler took to the local newspaper’s editorial page to tell Lincolnites the city would not embark upon the second phase of the biggest public works project the city had tackled to date: The Antelope Valley Project.
The project was like major reconstructive surgery in the heart of the city – with six miles of new roads and 18 bridges constructed as the city shored up of two miles of Antelope Creek to reduce flooding near the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. But the project that supporters said would cost $175 million in 1999 wound up costing $246 million with inflation, and Beutler abandoned the second phase of the project shortly after a series of newspaper stories came out scrutinizing the construction contract and questionable costs.
The project has been costly and controversial at times – like when the state auditor found “serious problems” with the accounting and when chunks of concrete began falling off the underside of bridges not long after they were built. But as the first phase of work wraps up, city officials will celebrate the project as a success next month with a party in the centerpiece park called Union Plaza.
And now the mayor is pushing a proposal that looks a lot like the second phase of Antelope Valley. City Engineer Roger Figard has proposed that a special railroad safety tax be used to fund a $77 million proposal to close two major railroad crossings, reroute two major arterial streets and build an overpass over the tracks along Cornhusker Highway at 31st Street, with a double roundabout on each side.
Figard says his proposal is a “slight modification” to changes envisioned in phase two of Antelope Valley, in that it would build one overpass at 31st Street rather than two underpasses at 29th and 33rd streets. In addition to closing dangerous railroad crossings where cars wait for about 50 trains per day, both options extend the east leg of an Antelope Valley road called Salt Creek Roadway, which cost $24.3 million to build but is underused by Lincolnites.
While arguing for the project on Monday, Beutler told City Council members and county commissioners that “extending Antelope Valley into northeast Lincoln” is an “essential goal.”
“Phase two (of Antelope Valley) was put aside in favor of the South Beltway and West Haymarket,” Beutler said, noting that the city “can’t do everything at once.”
The South Beltway around the city continues to languish, but the West Haymarket arena development is well underway.
Figard acknowledged his proposal closely mirrors phase two of Antelope Valley.
“It’s a part of Antelope Valley phase two,” Figard said in an interview. “It’s compatible. It does not conflict (with Antelope Valley) but it improves on the configuration that Antelope Valley phase two had, but all still for the purposes of closing those two busy at-grade railroad crossings.”
He said the city doesn’t have the money to build phase two, “so that’s why we’re moving ahead” with a proposal to use money from the Railroad Transportation Safety District, which he directs. The RTSD is funded by property taxes – it charges a 2.6-cent levy and has about $18.2 million banked for future projects.
A key part of phase two was adding on to a big, new Antelope Valley road that extends east from UNL but kind of peters out, without a strong connection to northeast Lincoln. The east leg of Salt Creek Roadway runs parallel to the Devaney Center and the former state fairgrounds, but hasn’t attracted much traffic (except on Husker game days) since it opened three years ago.
Figard said the road is underused, and a better connection to Cornhusker Highway would make it more visible and convenient to drivers.
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s there yet,” he said of the $24.3 million road.
The city plans to eventually extend 33rd Street all the way to Superior Street, which would make Salt Creek Roadway a better connection from northeast Lincoln to downtown, UNL and the future Innovation Campus.
Former Councilwoman Robin Eschliman has long been a skeptic of the Antelope Valley Project, saying four years ago that it was “costing us out the ears,” lacked accountability and would take the city decades, if not centuries, to recoup the money spent.
Today, the commercial real estate agent says the project has spurred a little private development, though not as much as the city would get by investing on the outskirts of the city.
“These inner-city projects are extremely difficult and expensive,” Eschliman said. “I’m a little surprised the city would move forward in an aggressive way as there has not been a huge level of private sector support for Antelope Valley.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Beutler’s decision to continue with phase two of the project.
Reported by Deena Winter, email@example.com
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