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Low Speed Limits On Hwy 81 Discussed Again

By Nancy McGill
Hebron J-R
A Wednesday morning Hebron Chamber coffee talk gathering on May 2 featured three representatives from the Nebraska Department of Roads, Wesley Wahlgreen, Dist. 4 engineer, Daniel Waddle, traffic engineer and Jason Prokop for NDOR communications for a lengthy discussion on the speed limit on Highway 81 around Hebron, Chester and other communities north along the route.
The discussion came at the tail end of this year’s legislative short session that saw lawmakers pass bill 1009, tacking five miles onto the speed limit for state highways and expressways - from 65 miles an hour to 70.
Highway 81 is an expressway of the state highway system and falls under the 65 mile-per-hour state statute based on a uniform concept for safe travel under ideal conditions.
Interstate 80 will stay at 75, Waddle said.  
A 2014 study zeroed in on four communities along Hwy 81 — the 55 mile-per-hour scoops around Chester, Hebron, Geneva and McCool Junction, and recommended the speed be raised to 65 because drivers in the 85 percentile along the route felt more comfortable driving above the 55 limit at 61 or higher.
“We did the study upon request from the drivers who asked us to look at it and even highway commissioners were asking us,” Waddle said. He added drivers at that time were already driving above 55.
The study was data taken from radar under conditions absent of inclement weather.
Waddle said NDOR doesn’t conduct studies under congestion or snow or rain because the speed limits are the maximum driving limits under “free-flowing” conditions.
“We were getting a good size sample with radar guns,” he said.
Wahlgreen said the 85 percentile figure comes straight from the drivers themselves.
“There are 10,000 miles of roads in Nebraska that we maintain,” Prokop said. “We studied 4,000 of them and based on that, it reflects the speed limits people are actually driving.”
A result from the 2014 study led Hebron to a 10-mile increase in 2015, but Chester, Geneva and McCool Junction didn’t bite.  
The other three communities did not concur with the study,” Waddle said.
The roads department will, however, be tasked with once again studying those communities and deciding on whether the limits will be raised, Hebron included.
“If we were to raise the limit to 70, we would anticipate a small increase, but we don’t anticipate it being a full five miles per hour increase,” Waddle said about speeds drivers are comfortable at. “If 70 is the maximum, it is the maximum.”
Expressways were designed for driving 70 miles per hour, he said.
“Intersections should be in compliance with that design speed,” Waddle said. Rural traffic isn’t affected by driveways or businesses as much as city traffic. “The decision to raise the speed limit in those four communities will be evaluated.”
Community members piping into the discussion disagreed with the NDOR study:
“If they’re going 70, they’re going to go 75. That’s just people.”
“These intersections are dangerous when you’re going that fast.”
“The concerns of the people is not who is driving through on 81. The concerns of the people are those of us who live here and are turning onto 81.”
“I don’t buy the survey. We’re the ones who live here.”
They also gave their visual takes.
“We can’t see around those hills,” Rev. Keith Brozek, who also drives a school bus, said. “I have had two funerals for people who were crossing 81 and didn’t make it.”
Brozek said he has to cross 81 at several different locations six times a day, and make left and right turns.
He said if the buses have to cross the highway, they aren’t allowed enough time to gather speed.
“These trucks are right on you,” Brozek said. “As you try to cross, you’re not sure what’s coming up over that hill or curve. There’s not a lot of room to maneuver.” Brozek said Road 6200 is a good example of seeing sudden traffic round the curve.
Bus coordinator, Denny Fangmeier said the 70-mile speed limit would be “excessive.”
From the north or the south of Hebron, Fangmeier said the curves are difficult to see around. Bus drivers north of the Stastny, making a left hand turn toward Geneva, cannot see which lane oncoming traffic from the south is in.
Fangmeier prefers a lower speed limit for more time to react.   
The curves and hills obstruct a clear line of sight, Hebron resident, Dave Corliss said.
“If you come into the north entrance on what we all call the hook road, you can see traffic coming from the south. They pop up over that hill,” Corliss said. He also called attention to Hebron’s seven entrances.
Resident Crystal Fangmeier agrees with a uniform speed limit, such as 65, because she and her family are driving based on how fast other drivers are going.
“We expect that driver to be coming at the speed limit. Lowering the speed limit bothers me,” she said.
“If the limit is lowered, you are going to increase your variance as to what drivers are driving,” Wahlgreen said. “The safest condition is when we can get everyone driving the same speed.”
Hebron City Councilmember Larry Fangmeier said he understands uniform speed limits.
Resident Wes Tracy said the state should decide on a uniform speed limit.
Like Brozek, Tracy and his wife, Judy, experienced a funeral - their daughter, Rebecca Tracy, who died at the intersection of Highways 81 and 136.
She was 17 years old and the fifth fatality since the intersection at Highways 136 and 81 had opened in 1996. Seventeen accidents had been logged at the intersection.  
Shortly after her death, 135 people met in the Hebron High school gymnasium to discuss safety. The department of roads took steps to decrease the accidents.  
“You closed the turning lanes off when Rebecca was killed. I applaud you for that,” Tracy said. Wahlgreen responded with condolences, but Tracy said Rebecca wasn’t a loss.
“We know where she’s at and we can’t wait to get there ourselves,” Tracy said.  
Whether the speed limit is 55, 65 or 70, the sheriff and his deputies will enforce it, Thayer County Sheriff David Lee said.
But almost immediately, Lee described how he has come to dread accident alerts.
“Shane and I are both on the fire department as well as our two other deputies,” Lee said. Deputy and Hebron Mayor, Shane Day, was also at the coffee gathering. “You hated to hear the tones. You almost knew where you were going. It was going to be 81 and 136.”
Lee said after the turning lanes were removed, the number of accidents and fatalities dropped, but on speed, he couldn’t determine a significant decrease in accidents.
“The turning lanes were a big issue,” he said. “We’ve had fatality accidents when the speed is 55. We’ve had them out there when the speed is 65. We’re going to have accidents, no matter what the speed is.”
It’s nothing to see drivers zooming by at 83 or 86 miles-per-hour, he said.
“I get complaints the deputies are sitting in the median. Good, complain all day to me,” Lee said. “These people from Texas feel comfortable driving 85, 90 on our roads because they do it down there every day.”
He said there are days he can’t buy a stop on 81 with 68 as the average speed. Drivers will go five miles over the limit and tell Lee they figure he’ll give them a break.
The sheriff’s office is open to suggestions on the speed limit around Hebron, however, Lee personally dislikes the 55 zone around Geneva.
Karla Joe said NDOR needs to consider John Deere recently bought a parcel on the east side of 81, south of MetalQuest.
“Farmers are going to be pulling equipment in and out. People will be doing business on that side of 81. It’s something you need to consider because you will have another business at the crest of the hill,” Joe said.
A call to Landmark Implement wasn’t returned.
Fangmeier suggested signage to raise awareness to limited visibility.
“If they’re raising it,” Lee said, “we are going to need something like ‘slow moving vehicles ahead.’ If we set it at 65, they want to run 70. We set it at 70, they want to run 75.”
Joe asked if residents need a petition. “We have a lot of people in this community who are concerned.”
The Hebron Journal-Register requested a copy of the 2014 study from NDOR last week. The study had not been received as of press time.