Bicyclist opinion, highway project prioritization meeting = round peg, square hole?

Sorry, folks – this is going to be kind of a longish and dullish post without pretty scenery pictures. Your eyes may glaze over.

But I have some thoughts I need to process after attending a Nebraska Department of Roads project prioritization meeting in Gering yesterday.

I didn’t really know what to expect, didn’t know whether it would be worth my time to attend (two hours on a weekday morning!), since this was billed as the second round of a project prioritization process.

Would my views as a bicyclist fit in?

Would there be an opportunity for me to express what I have heard over and over again from my fellow western Nebraska cyclists, what several of them asked me to bring up during this NDOR meeting? Specifically:

Roads need shoulders. Nice, wide, smooth ones. Shoulders should be maintained with the same level of care as the main traveled surface. A disjunct surface between the lane and the shoulder is bad. Surface cracks are bad – deep, spoke-breaking perpendicular ones, and also the deep, wheel-trapping parallel ones. We would much rather ride on the shoulder than in the traffic lane, but very few road shoulders exist or are in good enough shape to ride.

Alas, my answers to the above questions are “not really.”

I felt like I was trying to fit a round peg of an opinion into a square hole of a question.

The point of the meeting was to make comments on a list of 12 NDOR West Region Candidate Projects.

NDOR west region candidate projectsHere’s a screenshot of a portion of a handout from the meeting, which was the focus of the input NDOR was gathering:

NDOR west region candidate project list

For those unfamiliar with the term (I wasn’t), a “Super 2” is a two-lane highway upgraded with “passing lanes ~ every 5 miles, or as needed” and “variable width paved shoulders.”

For the the full NDOR West Region Candidate Project List, click here.

My top transportation wish-list item – replace the shoulder surface of Highway 71 in Banner County – was not under consideration. (To see why this is a priority for me, check out this video of a portion of my favorite riding route. The video is 2 minutes from my rear bike camera of spine-jarring, chain-rattling shoulder riding northbound on Highway 71 north of Highway 88. I weave back and forth on the shoulder a little, trying to find the least bad part of each crack to ride over. On some days, the assault from the shoulder cracks are too much for me to bear and I cross the rumble strip to ride in the lane, which is nice and smooth.)

I felt a little bubble of hope when NDOR Deputy Director Khalil Jaber mentioned the NDOR’s new tag line in conjunction with the new Nebraska slogan “Good Life. Great Opportunity.” (Thank goodness, something better than the Nebraska Tourism Commission’s “Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice.”)

good life great journey

“Good Life. Great Journey.” Heck, yeah, man! That’s what it’s all about!

But then, the metrics set in.

We have these 12 potential projects, see? And we have limited funding. So we have to use engineering performance, economic performance, and stakeholder input to set priorities.

Engineering performance means things like safety, traffic volume, congestion, time savings, cost.

Economic performance means things like jobs created, the wages of those jobs, and “gross state product.”

Stakeholder input means, well . . . for a two-hour meeting on a weekday morning, from what I observed, it means primarily the opinions of:  1. people who are paid to be there as part of their jobs, 2. people who are retired and have the time to dedicate to promoting their interests. In the half of the room in which I sat, the most vocal and numerous participants seemed to be those representing the Heartland Expressway Association (made up of business and local government interests) and some folks from Chadron who are riled about an idea to install a roundabout or any possibility of a Chadron bypass.

The gist of the atmosphere I absorbed from the discussion in the room about “engineering performance, economic performance, stakeholder input” were not things I associate with a “Good Life. Great Journey.”

More trucks. Move more vehicles faster. Take pressure off I-25. Nationally-important travel corridor. People and goods hurrying through.

I get it.

Jobs are important. The economy is important. Without cash in hand, it’s real hard to make the Good Life happen. And when I’m heading somewhere in my car on a timeline – the Denver airport, for example – I’m perfectly happy to speed along at 70 miles per hour.

Time and money are easily measurable. I get that. I’ve worked in both the “hard sciences” and the “soft social sciences.” Quantitative data is more satisfyingly . . . quantitative . . . than qualitative data.

But the “time and money” equation leaves something out: quality of life. The qualitative stuff that’s hard to measure. A part of that “stakeholder input” that the NDOR, to their credit, is trying to capture.

Is a fast, efficient journey “great”? Or does a great journey meander and discover? It depends on who’s speaking.

For a bicyclist, or for someone who specifically chooses to get off the rat race of I-80 to take state highways, a great journey is perhaps more “discover” and less “efficient.” (Side note: Hey, Nebraska Tourism Commission – how about “Good Life. Great Discoveries.”? You’re welcome.)

When it came time for the breakout session to discuss the 12 project options, I wanted to bolt. I didn’t really have a good picture of all the possible projects on the prioritization list. (What the heck is a “viaduct” anyway? Apparently there are some in Melbeta, Minatare, Lewellen, and Bayard that need fixing.) But I stayed anyway, and put in my two cents’ worth.

We breakout session participants were each given three dots to place next to project options we wanted to discuss. I put dots on just two projects, roads I had cycled on before: US 26 east of Minatare, and US 26 west of Morrill.

My comments were basically: 1. I’ve seen a significant amount of bicycle traffic on Highway 26 between Torrington and Scottsbluff – both leisure riders and commuters. 2. Having worked in the tourism industry, I know a lot of tourists journey on Highway 26 along the Oregon Trail. Oh yeah, and 3. With the Scottsbluff airport suffering of late, Highway 71 south of Kimball has become more important as a back route to the Denver airport.

I felt like my bicycle comments were a microdroplet in the bucket.

When I approached one of the NDOR presenters afterwards to pass along some written comments from a fellow Western Nebraska Bicycling Club member who could not attend and I began to talk about the importance of good road shoulders for bicyclists, I saw the person’s eyes glaze over (whether from fatigue at the end of a long series of listening sessions across the state, or lack of interest in the concerns of bicyclists, I know not).

But a participant from the Chadron delegation did come up to me afterwards and express appreciation for the “non-motorized transport” viewpoint – the ability of pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate a potential Chadron roundabout was a concern, he said. “The video from the DOR didn’t show any bicyclists or pedestrians moving through it.”

Come to think of it, the illustration on the NDOR Super 2 highway fact sheet doesn’t show any bicycles, either. Or shoulders, for that matter.

NDOR super 2 highway

I get the sense the Super 2 highway may be a preferred option because it’s cheaper. My question is, how well will the “variable” shoulders of a Super 2 highway accommodate bicycles?

But the hopeful thing is, NDOR is open to further comment on this topic, until July 29, 2016, at least. One of the handouts at the session was a sheet full of blank lines, headed with “We want to hear from you.” The contact listed on the sheet is:

Sarah Kugler
Public Involvement Manager
Nebraska Department of Roads
PO Box 94759
Lincoln NE 68509-4759
sarah.kugler@nebraska.gov

I plan to send a link to this blog post to Ms. Kugler, as well as to Nebraska Senator John Stinner (who was present at the meeting) and to U.S. Senator Deb Fischer (who had a representative present at the meeting).

If you have something to say about anything I’ve described or linked to, I’d encourage you to send your comments along as well. The deadline is July 29.

Copyright 2016 by Katie Bradshaw

 

 

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Cyclist alert: summer 2015 Wildcat Hills Highway 71 construction

010downhill

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