October 25, 2014

Drivers beware…deer on the highways (AUDIO)

white_tailed_deer_0820[1]Fall poses a few more dangers than normal on Nebraska highways, especially car-deer accidents.

Be careful out there, in particular near those deer crossing signs on the highway.

Nebraska Office of Highway Safety Administrator Fred Zwonechek says they’re there for a reason.

“It’s usually probably a place where typically deer are moving regularly,” Zwonechek tells Nebraska Radio Network.

Deer, though, don’t seem to follow a pattern, let alone keep a routine and cross the highway at the same place every time.

Dawn and dusk are the most dangerous time of the day for deer on the highway.

But Zwonechek points out at harvest time, deer can get spooked at any time of the day.

“You get somebody who’s out there working a field and gets close to a cover area, they’ll start moving in the middle of the day and all of the sudden, you’ve got one in your ditch and it’s coming right at you,” Zwonechek says.

Zwonechek says highway safety engineers are trying a few new methods to limit car-deer accidents. Fencing seems to be helping in some areas, but it is expensive.

The best advice he says he can give is to be on the lookout for deer. Scan the shoulders and fields. If you spot one deer, there likely are more nearby. Don’t swerve to miss a deer. Drivers often lose control of their vehicles when they swerve. The best bet is to just plow ahead and hit the deer.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:40]

New span opens this afternoon joining Nebraska & Iowa

Photo courtesy Nebraska Department of Roads

Photo courtesy Nebraska Department of Roads

A new bridge is opening today connecting southeast Nebraska and southwest Iowa.

Officials say completion of the project not only eases travel for motorists but will encourage economic development between the states for years to come.

Scott Nixon, a construction engineer with the Iowa Department of Transportation, says it’s been a lengthy, expensive venture.

“The total project with Nebraska costs and Iowa costs combined is about $115-million,” Nixon says. “The bridge itself was 61-million.”

Construction began in January of 2012 so it’s been just two months shy of three years to complete.

The new route includes about seven miles of newly-constructed four-lane divided highway extending west of the U.S. Highway 34 interchange with Interstate 29 near Glenwood, Iowa, to U.S. Highway 75 between Plattsmouth and Bellevue, Nebraska.

The Nebraska Department of Roads completed the work on its side last year.

The new bridge over the Missouri River includes a 500-foot steel section that spans the waterway.

“Nebraska is paying for a portion of the bridge and Iowa is paying for a portion,” Nixon says. “It’s not a 50-50 split because there’s more bridge on the Iowa side than the Nebraska side.”

The bridge sits on 17 concrete and steel piers.

“It was a challenge working in the river,” Nixon says. “The contractor started working on the river in early ’12 and they were still working in late 2013. It was over a year to get the river piers up.”

Estimates show the bridge will initially carry around 2,000 vehicles a day, ramping up to 11,000 vehicles a day in the years to come. The bridge is expected to open around 3 PM.


Water levels will remain high on the Missouri River to prep for ’15

Gavins Point Dam

Gavins Point Dam

The Missouri River will see continued high levels over the coming weeks as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepares for next year by maintaining above-normal releases from Gavins Point Dam.

Jody Farhat, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division in Omaha, says maintaining the increased releases now will help lower the risk of flooding next season.

“We’ve had a fairly high runoff into the reservoirs for most of the summer, really peaking in August when we had our second wettest August on record,” Farhat says. “As a result, we’ve increased the releases out of Gavins Point with the goal of evacuating all the water that’s stored in the flood control pools by the start of next year’s runoff season.”

Along with flood control, Farhat says excess water will extend the navigation season.

“The higher releases that we have now will provide an additional three or four feet in the river, which will help navigation here in this latter part of this season,” Farhat says. “We are also providing an extension of the navigation service, an additional ten days, so it’ll end on December 10th at the mouth near St. Louis.”

She says it will also mean an increase in hydropower generation.

Farhat says the Corps is holding public meetings on October 28th in Pierre, South Dakota, and on October 29th in Council Bluffs for people who are interested in the water management operations.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton


County leaders struggle to keep bridges passable as harvest begins

Corn combineMany Nebraska counties face the dilemma of having to repair or replace dozens of crumbling rural bridges, especially as farmers ramp up traffic during the harvest.

The Nebraska Legislature’s Transportation Committee is hearing testimony on an interim study of the problem.

Saunders County Highway Superintendent Steve Mika says his county has more than 400 bridges and more than 100 of them had to be closed following new bridge inspection rules issued in 2008.

“Average cost of these bridges are $300-350,000 a piece,” Mika says. “Most of these bridges in the past were being replaced or repaired, the majority of it was by local funds. We also have several bridges that are below the sufficiency rating are in place to be replaced.”

Mika says the county has slowly been able to replace bridges, but still has 19 of them closed on major county roads, and about a dozen on minimum-maintenance roads. In some cases, he says bridges can be replaced with large box culverts.

“Getting around these roads for harvest or planting, that’s a real challenge in trying to keep these bridges open,” Mika says. “Even the ones that are open are low tonnage and need to be replaced or upgraded in order to accommodate the farm equipment.”

Larry Dix, executive director for the Nebraska Association of County Officials, says counties are doing as much as they can to keep bridges and roads open, at a time when public sentiment against higher property taxes is growing.

Dix says Saunders County leaders, in particular, are in a tough spot. If Saunders County officials said there are 10 bridges that need to be replaced, each costing $300,000, and if they voted to increase the tax rate 10 cents, “we would immediately have recall petitions out,” Dix says.

Jay Rempe, a vice president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, says there’s no easy answer. He said having a good infrastructure is critical for the state’s agriculture industry. Rempe says the Farm Bureau continues to hear from members about bridges being closed and the difficulty they pose.

“Those that have been closed, those that the weight limits have been reduced, farm equipment is getting bigger, wider, heavier,” Rempe says. “More and more trucks are running on those roads. Farmers have invested in trucks. We have a lot more grain moving because of our ethanol industry and others by trucks and those county bridges come more and more into play.”

One engineering consultant for several counties estimates the cost to replace or upgrade all substandard bridges in Nebraska could exceed $2-billion.

By Doug Kennedy, KWBE, Beatrice



Nation’s ag boss blasts rail lines for not anticipating bumper harvest

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

The nation’s top agriculture official is raising alarms about the looming shortage of rail cars to carry grain from Midwestern fields to market.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says railroad officials should have anticipated the coming bumper harvest and been ready with sufficient cars for delivery.

Vilsack says, “The reality is that we’re behind, the rail industry is behind, and they need to catch up.”

Two of the biggest railroads claim they’re investing in more staff and equipment, but Vilsack says, the moves aren’t coming quickly enough as farmers are already beginning to harvest crops.

“The National Surface Transportation Board has received comments from USDA in a letter that was recently sent on behalf of farmers encouraging them to continue putting pressure on the Burlington Northern and Canadian Pacific rail lines to ensure they have adequate number of cars, adequate number of locomotives, more personnel and continue to improve track.”

Vilsack says railroads should be penalized for poor service and they shouldn’t be allowed to increase their freight rates when there’s a backlog and bumper crops.

“There may be some opportunities for the National Surface Transportation Board to change their system so that rail companies are not rewarded for substandard service,” Vilsack says. “It doesn’t seem to me that they ought to be able to charge extra when there’s a backlog and a large harvest. They ought to be anticipating that.”

Vilsack says another possible solution includes the use of arbitration.

Vilsack says, “We’ve also suggested that there might be additional ways in which decisions concerning whether or not they’ve stepped up adequately can be put into a mediation or arbitration system that might be less time-consuming and less expensive for producers.”

Legislation is being introduced in the U.S. Senate to address the problem, while lawmakers from South Dakota and Minnesota are calling on the USDA to conduct an economic analysis of rail service challenges facing agricultural shippers.

Crude oil production is bounding in the U-S. Five years ago, rail cars hauled 11,000 loads of crude oil, while last year, it was 400,000 rail car loads of crude.

Supporters of the stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline say if the project were greenlighted, it could be carrying huge quantities of crude, freeing up more trains to haul grain.