Iowa, Nebraska leaders: Wet weather could slow road repairs

Iowa and Nebraska transportation officials said Thursday that they're hoping to have nearly all roads and bridges that were damaged by last month's flooding repaired by midsummer, but that a wet spring could hamper their efforts

Iowa Department of Transportation Director Mark Lowe and his Nebraska counterpart, Kyle Schneweis, held a joint news conference in Council Bluffs to update the public on the damage in their states and how long it might take to repair.

In Iowa, the damage is concentrated in the west along Interstate 29 and the Missouri River.

"The work to get traffic moving again has been nonstop," Lowe said. "We have people who don't know what day it is anymore because they've been working day and night."

Lowe said many repairs have been made and some roads have been opened along the interstate north of Council Bluffs, which is just across the river from Omaha, Nebraska. The damage is heavier farther south, where twin bridges along the interstate south of Nebraska City and north of Hamburg, Iowa, were heavily damaged. The state hopes to have traffic moving in that area again by June.

"The complicating factor is that the flooding threat is not over," he said. "Because of damage to the levee system, we will have to balance how future flooding might affect repair efforts."

Weather experts say this spring could bring major flooding for much of the U.S, as the ground in the Midwest and South is already saturated and northern snowmelt is expected to be significant. The extent of the flooding will largely depend on how much rain falls over the next few months. Thursday's news conference was held as the second " bomb cyclone " in as many months dropped heavy snow from Colorado to Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Nebraska suffered heavy flooding last month along the Missouri, Niobrara, Elkhorn and Platte rivers. Although the damage covered a larger area, it didn't disrupt traffic on roads as busy as I-29.

Still, an impassable county road or washed out bridge can add one to two hours of commuting time for some rural residents trying to get kids to school or a tractor to the far side of a farm, Schneweis said. Just west of Omaha, a washed out section of Highway 6 is affecting about 20,000 commuters, he said.

"It's a little like saying you love all your kids the same," Schneweis said. "It's important to us that all of these people can get where they need to go."

It's not just flooding that's affecting Nebraska roadways, he added. Because much of I-29 in Iowa is closed, traffic has dramatically increased on Nebraska's Highway 75, which runs about parallel to the interstate.

"That highway is not equipped to handle that amount of traffic, and it's taking a toll," Schneweis said.

In all, Iowa had nearly 50 miles along the I-29 corridor that are damaged, nearly half of that categorized as severe. Lowe said damage estimates are between $70 million to $90 million. In Nebraska, 180 miles of roadway and 27 bridges were damaged by the flooding, including 12 that are still closed. Schneweis estimated that there was $160 million in road and bridge damage.

Officials were hoping the latest big storm wouldn't exacerbate flooding along already swollen rivers.

"I know it's something we're all holding our breath on," Schnewies said.