Cyclist alert: summer 2015 Wildcat Hills Highway 71 construction

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A portion of Highway 71 through Nebraska’s Wildcat Hills that will be under construction this summer.

Not long after I posted about Highway 71 through the Wildcat Hills being my favorite local road cycling route, I was dismayed to see a press release from the Nebraska Department of Roads stating that the highway would be under construction this summer:

Weather permitting, work is scheduled to begin the week of April 13 on N-71 in the Wildcat Hills area, beginning at Reference Post 47+66 in Banner County and ending at Reference Post 55+84 in Scotts Bluff County, according to the Nebraska Department of Roads. … Work will include concrete ditch lining, new drainage structures, bridge deck preservation treatments and new asphalt. … Traffic will be maintained with lane closures as needed. Work is anticipated to be completed in November.

Depending on where and when that construction was going to take place, it could eliminate all of our south-on-highway-71 rides during the summer training season.

I called the NDOR project manager, Maryanne Jacobs, to ask how and when the project might affect cyclists using the highway.

For those who, like me, are unable to decipher the reference posts, the involved section of road starts south of Gering near the off-ramp bridge overpass and continues south over the hill to the missile silo site.

Maryanne said that the first phase of the project, underway now, would include work on the median and the northbound and southbound inside lanes. So, traffic will be one lane in each direction, but it sounds like bikes will still be able to travel in both directions on the shoulder.

During construction, the speed limit will be dropped to 55 mph. Hopefully people will heed the reduced speed limit. It won’t be too fun to have large-profile vehicles passing at 65 mph in the outside lane adjoining the shoulder we’re riding on. (Truckers are generally pretty awesome about understanding the impact of their airwash, but rental RV drivers scare me.)

The second phase, to begin in July or August, is the part that will really affect cyclists. One side of the road will be done at a time, so a section of either southbound or northbound Highway 71 will have the outside lane and shoulder closed. The closest hardsurface detours for road cyclists to get through the Wildcat Hills would be via Highway 88 East to Highway 26 at Bridgeport (a long ride!) or via Highway 88 West and Stegall Road (which has a horribly bumpy road surface in Scotts Bluff County) to Highway 92.

The good thing is, it sounds like the shoulder should have a nicer surface to ride on when this project is complete, sometime around Thanksgiving. Hopefully improved drainage will also eliminate the gravel bars that form on the road shoulder after a heavy rain.

If I get updates on this construction project, I’ll post them to this blog.

Also, mad props to NDOR! They apparently included a stipulation in their construction contract that the highway be open for the Monument Marathon in September – without the race director even having to ask them to. How’s that for a community and region coming together to support a sporting event?

(Also, also – I cannot think of highway management in Nebraska without thinking of Star Wars. NDOR?)

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw

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