Weekly Column

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The federal government’s first responsibility is to protect our country and provide for the national defense. After that, it must meet our nation’s infrastructure needs, whether it is broadband deployment, work on our ports and airports, or modernizing our highways and bridges.

Unfortunately, much of our infrastructure is in dire need of repair. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent Infrastructure Report Card gave U.S. infrastructure a “D-plus” rating, the same as in 2013 and only up slightly from a “D” in 2009.

This level of disrepair isn’t sustainable in the long term. That’s why I’ve made infrastructure one of my highest priorities throughout my time in public service. As a senator in the Nebraska Legislature, I served as the chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, where I introduced and helped pass several bills that continue to support our state’s roads, highways, and interstates.

I have maintained that focus on infrastructure since entering the U.S. Senate almost eight years ago. I am proud to serve as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety, which oversees the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT). This puts me in a unique position to advocate for infrastructure projects that can have a positive impact on Nebraska.

A recent example of this kind of project is a proposed highway bypass in the city of Blair. Blair city officials wrote to me earlier this year to ask that I support their application for a BUILD grant, a competitive federal grant that DoT awards for infrastructure projects of local or regional significance.

Blair applied for a BUILD grant because the city’s main road, Washington Street, is also currently designated as a stretch of both US Highway 30 and US Highway 75. This has led to unsafe levels of congestion right in the heart of Blair’s downtown.

I wrote to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao offering the Blair South Bypass project my full support. I stressed that high levels of freight and through traffic from two highways crossing a small town like Blair significantly adds to congestion and makes the town less safe. I pointed out that Blair’s application showed that this traffic has led to many accidents and, tragically, the death of 11-year-old Jaycoby Estrada, who was struck by a truck while crossing the street on his bicycle.

Recently, DoT announced that they had awarded Blair a $7.56 million grant to construct this highway bypass. When it’s finished, the bypass will alleviate congestion and improve safety in downtown Blair.

When I spoke with Nicole Nason, Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, about this grant, she mentioned how impressed the agency was with Blair’s application. She also told me how competitive this grant award process was. The DoT received requests for $9 billion in grant funds, but only had $1 billion to award.

Blair Mayor Richard Hansen told me that the Blair South Bypass project “will provide a tremendous boost in promoting safety in our downtown area and throughout the community.” City Administrator Rod Storm also said that this has been a priority for Blair for nearly two decades, writing that this grant will provide “traffic an alternative to using the downtown area, particularly trucks.”

Investing in our infrastructure is vital for continued growth and development in Nebraska communities. And as the city of Blair knows well, it is also critical for public safety.

This kind of project is exactly what BUILD grants are for. This new bypass will make Blair residents safer while also helping commerce in northeast Nebraska flow more smoothly. I was glad to see the Department of Transportation recognize how important it will be to the Blair community.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.