Economic development and keeping products moving cross country were among the discussions during a hearing in Scottsbluff Monday.

A U.S. Senate field hearing, “Keeping Goods Moving in America’s Heartland,” was held by the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee in Scottsbluff Wednesday to discuss the FAST Act, a five-year federal highway bill approved by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 4, 2015.

U.S. Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and committee chairman heard from stakeholders about the impact the act has on rural Nebraska. The FAST Act includes provisions to improve the nation’s infrastructure and establish a national freight policy. The hearing focused on the economic impact of freight transportation in rural areas, how the act will be implemented and ways in which transportation networks can be strengthened.

Fischer said without a robust transportation system the U.S. cannot offer products domestically or around the world. One of her goals in the Senate was to pass a long-term highway bill.

“For nearly a decade, Congress passed 36 short-term extension,” Fischer said. “I’m proud to see this achieved.”

The FAST Act provides more career opportunities for veterans, allows younger people with a Commercial Driver’s license (CDL) to operate commercial freight across state lines and creates work opportunities for veterans.

Kyle Schneweis, director Nebraska Department of Roads, said most concerns are impacted by rural challenges.

“The emphasis on access and connectivity stresses our understanding of our rural landscape and commitment to growth through partnerships and economic opportunity,” Schneweis said.

Deb Cottier, executive director, Northwest Nebraska Development Corporation, said freight movement and roads are critical. She said the Heartland Expressway is the missing link in the highway network.

“Western Nebraska is isolated from major highways. The only way to get there is on two-lane roads,” Cottier said. “The prosperity of America’s heartland depends on four lanes.”

Without the Build Nebraska Act, Cottier said she didn’t think the Nebraska Department of Roads would complete it, despite the economic benefits.

“For every dollar invested in road improvements, we see two dollars return in economics,” Cottier said.

The expressway from Kimball to Scottbluff is currently four lanes. The other parts include east on Highway 26, 92, 385 and Alliance through Chadron to the South Dakota state line.

Right at the Nebraska/South Dakota state line, it drops to two lanes.

“It’s a visual we can all see,” Cottier said. “It creates this bottleneck and traffic hazard.”

Don Overman, chairman, Western Nebraska Regional Airport Authority Board, said FAST is critical for rural airports across the country. Overman said the airport is important in serving airlines as well as businesses, such as FedEx and UPS, who also use the state’s roads to travel 120-150 miles nearly every day.

“Good roads are essential for the economic development of our entire area,” Overman said.

Overman said from an economic standpoint, the airport is needed otherwise large businesses will not consider coming to the area. Overman also said FedEx and UPS deliver the items people want or need.

“We’re an overnight society now,” Overman said. “People order from companies all over the United States and want it tomorrow.”

It’s never there soon enough, said Brent Holliday, chief executive officer, Nebraska Transport Company. Holliday said businesses don’t warehouse or stock merchandise like they used to, leading to a more urgent need.

“They need to have freight that can get from Chicago to Denver in two days, they rely heavily on that,” Holliday said. “Their inventory is so low, if a customer needs something, they may not have it in stock.”

Holliday was also concerned about the 48,000 truck driver shortage nationwide because trucks represent the first and last mile in a worldwide freight train.

“In Nebraska, there are 13,500 carriers. The majority are small carriers,” Holliday said. “For an effective network, you have to have an ample supply of carriers large and small.”

FAST attempts to make sure drivers are competent. Drivers are required to have 30 hours of instruction and most companies, Holliday’s included, have eight hours of additional mandated classroom instruction.

Holliday said FAST was a good start and hopes it leads to different industries interacting more, but wants enforcement to be more consistent from state to state.

“Regulation is not a bad thing,” Holliday said. “It’s made the industry safe and drivers physically and mentally fit to share highways with our families.”

David Freeman, senior vice president of transportation, BNSF Railway, said the act has provided BNSF with some positives in relation to railroad crossings. BNSF has 24,000 crossings, which don’t include pedestrian crossings, overpasses or underpasses. Freeman said BNSF wanted to do whatever is helpful for the overall system of business,

“The other side for us is the ability to generate modes of transportation having a consistent timely process,” Freeman said. “We want to do stuff that is helpful for the overall system of business, but realize there is an effective environmental and economic process and we want to be a part of that.”

Schneweis said accommodations take eight to ten years to deliver, especially when discussing roads expanding from two to four lanes.

“We understand the economic impacts,” Schneweis said. “It’s the Build Nebraska Act, not the Build Eastern Nebraska Act.”

Article by Irene North, Staff Reporter for the Scottsbluff Star Herald (