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Decades in the making, Lincoln South Beltway opens to traffic

By Andrew Wegley

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    LINCOLN, Nebraska (Lincoln Journal Star) — After decades of planning, more than two years of construction and an outdoor ceremony amid the bracing Nebraska winter Wednesday morning, Lincoln’s South Beltway is, at last, open to traffic.

The opening of the 11-mile stretch of roadway that changes the course of Nebraska 2 marked a milestone for the city, the state and Gov. Pete Ricketts, who spoke passionately about the expressway before he and his security staff became the first group to travel the route.

“This is a really exciting day,” Ricketts told a crowd of about 100 supporters and onlookers at Wednesday’s private ceremony, which was held on the beltway near the U.S. 77 interchange that serves as the western gateway to the bypass.

“I am super excited that I’m able to drive on this expressway while I’m still governor. In fact, that was one of the things I told (officials working on the project), like, ‘Hey, I want this thing done while I’m still governor so I can drive on it.’ And, guess what? They were able to accomplish that.”

The governor’s hope wasn’t always a sure thing. Wednesday’s opening came nearly six months earlier than initially expected when primary construction of the beltway began in May 2020. Planners had expected the beltway to open in May 2023 — four months after Ricketts is set to leave office in January.

“Let’s just call it six months early,” the governor said. “Why not? I think it sounds great.”

Ricketts celebrated the $352 million beltway’s opening alongside Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, Nebraska Department of Transportation Director John Selmer and Hawkins Construction head Chris Hawkins.

Each of the officials thanked dozens of public- and private-sector employees who helped make the opening possible, including state senators who moved to prioritize funding for the project, engineers and planners from local, state and federal agencies and more than 300 craftspeople who worked to build the beltway.

“We also owe this moment to the folks who moved mountains — or maybe, large hills, technically — here in Nebraska to build the beltway,” Gaylor Baird said, adding that as a result of such collaboration, “the road to Lincoln is now paved with even more opportunity.”

The beltway, which stretches from U.S. 77 to 120th Street and largely runs just south of Saltillo Road, will shift commercial truck traffic from the existing Nebraska 2 route that runs through south Lincoln, unclogging the arterial roadway that includes 17 stoplights.

The entire project — which includes five interchanges, two of which won’t open until next year — included the paving of 60 lane miles of roadway and the construction of 21 bridges, 39 box culverts and five roundabouts.

Six more roundabouts are still under construction, along with the two remaining interchanges, 3 more miles of paved roadway and two more box culverts. The entire project is expected to be finished by May 2024.

But the bulk of the massive project — which Selmer described as a “tremendous asset to the community” and state — is ready and waiting for the thousands of vehicles that officials expect to traverse the new road between now and 2025.

That feat is a result of hundreds of craftspeople, said Hawkins, whose company spearheaded the beltway’s construction alongside more than a dozen subcontracting companies, most of which are Nebraska-based.

“The glory we have today, they earned, through honorable toil,” Hawkins said of the workers who spent more than 300,000 collective hours building the beltway.

The construction executive noted that no one suffered any lost-time injuries in the course of the beltway’s construction, which he said was a testament to “a relentless commitment to safety.”

“We made it all the way through, and that’s really because we did it the Nebraska way,” Hawkins said.

The officials, too, touted the economic opportunities afforded to Lincoln and Lancaster County by the roadway, which Gaylor Baird said will enhance mobility in the region while spurring development along and near the beltway, which runs a few miles south of the city’s current southern limit.

And, the mayor said, the beltway’s opening marks a win for the traveling public in Lincoln, who will soon travel the Nebraska Parkway — the stretch of Nebraska 2 that, until Wednesday, ran through Lincoln — less encumbered by semitrailers, 1,700 of which each day are expected to instead take the beltway by 2025.

The bypass’ opening will also allow for easier mobility for Lincoln residents, like 28-year-old Dylan Lyness, who approached Ricketts in the aftermath of Wednesday’s ceremony to thank him for the project.

“I live in Lincoln but my grandma lives out by Roca, and so I’m gonna drive this out to come see her and visit her,” he told the governor before posing for a photo with Ricketts.

Later, he said he didn’t know ahead of time that the governor was set to speak at the ceremony. All he knew was the bypass — years in the making — was finally set to open.

“I knew I couldn’t miss it,” he said, before he walked back to his vehicle and, for the first time, drove east across the South Beltway.

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