March 2, 2015

Gov. Ricketts searches for NDOR director; opposes gas tax hike

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts says he is not in favor of increasing the gas tax.

Many states are poised to take advantage of a drop in gas prices by increasing the state’s take.

Ricketts says the state needs to operate on what it has.

“I want to work with the money that we have available right now in the Department of Roads,” Ricketts tells Nebraska Radio Network affiliate WNAX. “A few years ago, we passed LB 84, thanks to Sen. Deb Fischer, which budgets a quarter cent of the sales tax to roads funding. I think that’s an adult way to try and budget for our roads funding and this is one of the reasons why we want to do a national job search to bring in somebody who can help us think differently about how we do operations, how we do financing, how we work with the federal government.”

Ricketts has announced a national search for a permanent director to lead the Nebraska Department of Roads. State Engineer Randy Peter serves as acting director.

Ricketts says the new director will be faced with many challenges, including how to help cities and counties improve roads and bridges.

Ricketts says he has fielded numerous complaints from county officials about bridges.

“Certainly that’s one of the issues we want to work with at the Department of Roads with the counties,” according to Ricketts, “Are there things we can do to be more creative in writing the specifications for those bridges that will allow counties to stretch their dollars farther?”

Ricketts has concluded national searches to fill the top positions for Corrections, Economic Development, and Health and Human Services.

The Greater Omaha Chamber Foundation, with statewide financial support, has hired Ted Ford Webb of Ford Webb Associates of Concern, MA to assist in the search. The Ricketts Administration has used Webb before.

Finalists identified by the firm will be forwarded to Governor Ricketts and his Chief of Staff, Matt Miltenberger, for interviews.

Donors who contribute to the search process will be disclosed after the conclusion of the search, according to the governor’s office.

Jerry Oster, WNAX, contributed to this story.

Push to repeal motorcycle helmet law comes as 75th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally approaches

Main Street, Sturgis, South Dakota/Photo courtesy of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Main Street, Sturgis, South Dakota/Photo courtesy of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Supporters of an effort to repeal the state mandatory motorcycle helmet law claim Nebraska loses millions of tourism dollars, because of its helmet law.

They say the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota makes this the perfect year to repeal the law.

Opponents counter the money reaped cannot replace the lives lost.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, who has unsuccessfully championed the helmet repeal in the past, has returned with LB 31, which would eliminate the mandate that motorcyclists wear helmets while riding in Nebraska.

Bloomfield tells the legislature’s Transportation Committee he has two goals in sponsoring the bill.

“First would be to open our borders to hundreds and thousands of people who, for one primary reason, choose to avoid our beautiful state and take their millions of dollars elsewhere,” Bloomfield says. “That reason being because they wish to have the right to ride without a helmet.”

Bloomfield’s second goal is to give Nebraskans the right to decide whether to wear a helmet or not.

Scott Hoffman supports Bloomfield’s bill. He tells committee members that thousands of motorcyclists heading each year to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally by-pass Nebraska and its scenic route to the rally simply because the state mandates they wear helmets.

“They’re expecting 700,000 riders this year,” Lange says of the rally. “It could be the largest ever and, ironically, it will be the 75th anniversary. What better way to celebrate it than with a helmet repeal?”

Lange contends the mandatory helmet law costs Nebraska tens of millions of dollars annually as motorcyclists avoid the state as they travel to the rally.

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will be held August 3rd through the 9th this year, the 75th year it has been held in Sturgis, South Dakota, just north of the Black Hills.

Opponents of the repeal argue this isn’t a financial decision.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Nicholas Worrell tells the committee repeal would be dangerous.

“Helmet laws work,” Worrell testifies. “According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 86% of riders wear helmets in states with a universal helmet law while only 55% do in states without such laws.”

According to federal statistics, 5,000 motorcyclists died nationwide in 2012, with 93,000 suffering injuries. Worrell says 10 times as many motorcyclists die in states without a helmet law than in those with a helmet law.

While Worrell provided figures for the committee to consider, a motorcyclist permanently disabled in a motorcycle wreck made an emotional plea to lawmakers to keep the mandate in place.

Patrick Lange survived the motorcycle wreck, but his wife didn’t. Neither were wearing helmets, something Lange says regrets bitterly.

“We have people testify how much money Nebraska is losing out on,” Lange says. “My step-son lost something money can never ever replace, because his step-dad and his mommy made a decision on their own not to put a helmet on.”

Lange says he spent 44 days in an intensive care unit and longer in a coma. He says the accident has left him legally, permanently disabled.

The committee will decide whether to advance the bill to the full legislature for debate.

Bid farewell to gas prices under $2 a gallon

gas-pump-111Gasoline prices are climbing in Nebraska after many weeks of falling.

Gail Weinholzer, at AAA-Nebraska, says a glut of crude oil is prompting some refineries to shut down and do maintenance work, plus, there is a labor dispute that started over the weekend that’s impacting about one in every ten U.S. refineries.

“After 123 days of consecutive decline, we finally hit the bottom price and started to bounce back up a little bit,” Weinholzer says.

The statewide average is now at $2.05 for a gallon of gas, up a dime in the past week. The national average is $2.11. Lincoln has Nebraska’s cheapest gas at $2.01 a gallon while it’s most expensive in Kearney at $2.19.

Weinholzer says it’s likely pump prices will keep climbing.

“They will continue to rise further, not too substantially we hope,” she says. “I wouldn’t expect numbers to get near the $3 mark but certainly back into the mid-$2s is within reason and within reach over the next couple of weeks.”

Some Nebraska retailers were selling ethanol blends in the $1.90s as recently as last week. A year ago, gas prices in Nebraska were retailing at $3.21 a gallon.


Winter gives Nebraska a second punch

Snow on carA second round of severe winter weather has Nebraska in its grip, but the National Weather Service forecasts that grip to loosen after today.

The National Weather Service has issued a winter weather advisory until noon over most of the state; eastern, central, and northwestern Nebraska. A winter storm warning is in effect until noon for much of west-central Nebraska and portions of the Panhandle.

The NWS state forecast calls for cloudy conditions with snow and blowing snow during the morning hours. Highs will range from 16 to 20 degrees in eastern and central Nebraska to 19 to 25 degrees in western Nebraska. High winds will drive the wind-chill well below those temperatures.

Tonight, the lows are expected to dip dangerously low: 1-to-5 below zero in the east; 2 below to 6 above in central Nebraska; and 10-to-18 degrees in the western portion of the state.

After today, weather forecasters predict a warming trend with highs heading toward the upper 20s in eastern Nebraska, freezing to around 40 in the central part of the state, and as high as 50 in western Nebraska. That warming trend is anticipated to continue and even improve over the weekend.

While snow is falling throughout Nebraska, a band of heavy snow is hitting eastern Nebraska. Lincoln, not recovered from the eight inches of snow dumped on the city over the weekend, braces for another snowstorm. This storm could produce another three to five inches, perhaps more. Omaha is expected to get slightly less.

Driving could prove difficult. Roads from the Panhandle east across the state have been completely covered with snow.

While the University of Nebraska-Lincoln remains open today, the University of Nebraska-Omaha has canceled activities for today.

Click here for road conditions from the Nebraska Department of Roads 511 website.

Weekend weather brings a brutal reminder that winter isn’t over (AUDIO)

Snowplow3A brutal weekend storm reminds all of us that winter isn’t over and that travelers must be prepared.

Captain Lance Rogers, Nebraska State Patrol Commander of Headquarters Troop-Lincoln, says the brutal blast of winter caught many drivers by surprise. A little preparation can make a big difference.

“Always, of course, carry those emergency first aid kits if you can in your vehicle,” Rogers tells Nebraska Radio Network.

He suggests carry a few extra clothes, such as extra coats, gloves, and hats. Also, blankets or a sleeping bag could provide warmth if you get stranded. Jumper cables and a tow rope would also be good winter accessories.

Motorists might want to consider packing some non-perishable food and bottled water.

Rogers advises motorists who land in a ditch or get stuck to stay with their car. If you have a cell phone, dial Star-55 to let the Patrol know you are stranded.

Both NSP and the Nebraska Department of Roads have a theme for bad weather: Know Before You Go.

“The ‘Know Before You Go’ portion is to dial 5-1-1 or to get on <> and check out the road conditions if they’re not going to call ahead first,” according to NDOR spokeswoman Mary Jo Oie.

Plan ahead. Leave early. Go slow.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]