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Wahoo’s Chestnut Street ‘officially’ open
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Wahoo’s Chestnut Street ‘officially’ open

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Chestnut Street

RIBBON CUTTING: M.E. Collins employee Dan Ludvik, who oversaw much of the Chestnut Street project construction, cuts the ribbon during a ceremony last Thursday celebrating the completion of the project. Behind Ludvik are members of the Wahoo City Council, Wahoo city staff members, Mayor Jerry Johnson, representatives of the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce and Greater Wahoo Development Foundation and owners and staff member of JEO Consulting Group and M.E. Collins Contracting Company. (Staff Photo by Suzi Nelson)

WAHOO – A day decades in the making finally took place last week.

The ceremonial ribbon was cut marking the end of the Chestnut Street project on the new Chestnut Street near the 12th Street intersection. Last Thursday, members of the Wahoo City Council and city staff, representatives from the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce and Greater Wahoo Development Foundation and staff and owners of two local businesses that had a major role in the project were present for the ceremony.

The $6 million project straightened Chestnut Street and upgraded the major intersections on the roadway to improve the exit and entrance to Wahoo and strengthen the connection to the expressway that runs on the outside edge of the city. The project also included improvements to the infrastructure including replacement of deteriorated storm drains and deficient water mains.

The new look for what is now called the “Chestnut Street Corridor” includes streetscaping, lighting and sidewalks to identify the corridor as a separate thoroughfare but tie in with the rest of the community. These design standards have been adopted by the city to be used in other areas of development as well.

Mayor Jerry Johnson said the project has been on the city’s radar for several decades.

“I go back 40, 50 years when I went to Luther (College) here and they talked about a highway through Wahoo,” he said during the Wahoo City Council meeting on Thursday.

City Administrator Melissa Harrell said she has had a set of plans for the Chestnut Street project on her desk for at least a decade.

“Today marks the culmination of many, many hours of hard work by many all aimed at the same goal of making Wahoo a better place,” she said during a speech preceding the ribbon cutting.

While talk of building a highway through Wahoo started almost a half-century ago, the real discussion about the Chestnut Street project began in 2009 when the city commissioned a study of First Street and Chestnut Street by JEO Consulting Group, an engineering firm based in Wahoo. This followed the transfer of ownership of Chestnut Street south of First Street by the Department of Roads (now Department of Transportation) to the City of Wahoo.

The first phase of the project was done in 2012-2013. TAB Construction of Omaha realigned 15th Street and straightened the intersection to 90 degrees, shifting the curve to the east, Harrell explained during an interview last Friday. The paving was also extended out to what was to become the expressway (Highway 77).

In Phase 2, work focused on 23rd Street from Chestnut to Locust streets in 2014, putting Wahoo in a good position for the opening of the expressway the next year, Harrell said. After the expressway opened, the city focused on making sure there were paved connections to the new roadway to improve the exit and entrance to Wahoo, she added.

“We wanted this to be very straightforward,” she added.

The completion of the expressway played a vital role in the Chestnut Street project. For many years the state road department has had a plan to connect Lincoln to Fremont with a four-lane highway. Cities along the route like Wahoo voiced concerns that the expressway would create an economic hardship once traffic traveled around, rather than through, their cities.

However, Wahoo seems to be an exception. Harrell said other than a “little blip” in sales after the roadway opened in 2015, there has not been a negative economic impact on Wahoo.

“Overall I was really surprised, honestly,” she said.

Because the expressway had been promised for so many years before it actually happened, the Wahoo city officials waited on the roadway’s final completion before moving forward with plans for Chestnut Street, Harrell said.

Once they made the decision to move forward, financing for the rest of the project was the next step. The last phase would be the most expensive of all of the project’s phases, Harrell said. Initially, the city looked at bonds or the general fund. In either case, the project would have a significant impact on tax payers, something the council wanted to avoid.

Then a new state law was passed that gave Wahoo another option. LB 357 allows municipalities to levy an additional half-cent sales tax for infrastructure improvements. The voters of Wahoo overwhelmingly approved the sales tax increase in 2014.

“It ended up being a very fair way, I guess in my mind, to pay for the road,” Harrell said.

The city also received about $600,000 from the state Department of Roads for the project. This is the amount of money the state would have spent on asphalt overlay of the roadway, which would have been done if the city had not begun the improvement project, Harrell said.

Once financing was determined, the city sought input from the public. Focus groups were vital to developing the design of the final phase. Harrell said the focus group’s main intent was to create easy access in and out of the city with as few stops as necessary along Chestnut and developing a visually pleasing corridor without spending a lot of money.

A major change in the traffic pattern resulted. The new intersection at Fifth Street by the county courthouse eliminated the stop light, for example. And the dangerous curve at 12th and Chestnut streets that tipped over many a semi through the years was eliminated to create a straight shot through the city from First Street to the expressway.

Harrell said a main factor in the success of the Chestnut Street project was the partnership with JEO Consulting Group and M.E. Collins Contracting Company. Both companies are based in Wahoo but work all across the state, and in JEO’s case, the world.

The city administrator said they work with JEO frequently on many city projects, but having the local engineering firm work on the Chestnut Street project was the right choice.

“Obviously JEO has a vested interest in Wahoo, but as a city council they wanted to make sure they were making a decision that was financially the best decision,” Harrell said.

Rob Brigham, CEO and president of JEO, said the project’s successful outcome was guaranteed by the local partnership between his company, M.E. Collins and the City of Wahoo.

“When you have local money, you have the opportunity for a local engineering firm and a local construction firm to be a part of this, this is what you get,” he said during the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Harrell thanked JEO for taking on the challenge of the Chestnut Street project and for providing answers and support whenever needed.

“In retrospect, I’m extremely happy we didn’t go with anybody else,” she said.

When the city council opened the bids for the project, Harrell said she was thrilled when she saw the bid from Collins was competitive.

“At that moment, I knew 100% that Wahoo would be in good hands,” she said.

Owner Mike Collins said working on a project in his business’ hometown was important to the entire company.

“We were so happy to get this job and have our employees, who a lot of them were born and raised in Wahoo, get to work on it,” he said. “That was very important.”

Dan Ludvik, who oversaw the project for M.E. Collins, thanked the city employees, Wahoo Concrete and his entire crew for their efforts.

“We pretty much went through here and picked up the old road, threw it in a dump truck and brought back the new road,” he said.

Harrell said there were several people to thank for the project’s success, including the many mayors who had a hand in it. That list includes Daryl Reitmajer, Janet Jonas, Loren Lindahl and the current mayor.

“Thank you for deciding this was important to Wahoo, for continuing to push for this to happen, for listening to our residents at planning and focus group meetings and for having vision for our community,” she said.

The city administrator also thanked the citizens of Wahoo for their patience throughout the project, as barricades clogged some part of the roadway for nearly eight years.

“Thank you for handling all the disruptions with the community in mind, knowing we would all be better off at the end,” she said.

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