This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
LINCOLN — A nearly two-decade effort to replace 560 miles of the Omaha area’s aging, cast-iron natural gas mains got a $10 million boost on Friday from federal taxpayers for the final 130 miles.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration awarded the gas main grant to the Metropolitan Utilities District, the publicly owned utility providing natural gas and water to the Omaha area.
MUD President Mark Doyle and Board Chair Tanya Cook said the federal funds should help the utility make additional progress this year. Since 2008, MUD has replaced up to 40 miles of gas main a year. Its 2023 budget set aside $24 million for such repairs.
“We’re trying to keep up with that,” Doyle said. “When you think about the Omaha metro area, 40 miles is a lot of building.”
Cook said MUD is “excited to put this grant funding to work.”
Grant to Village of Stuart
The feds awarded another $200,000 grant for replacing outdated gas mains to the north-central Nebraska village of Stuart, which runs its own natural gas utility.
Village Board Chairman Larry Paxton said the money would help the utility improve service to Stuart at less cost to ratepayers.
U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., joined Gov. Jim Pillen in celebrating the grants. Fischer and U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., were the only two members of the Nebraska congressional delegation at the time to vote in support of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that provided the federal grant funds.
We need to be able to make those connections continue. We need to make sure those investments continue.– U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
Both received criticism from fellow Republicans at the time for supporting the bill, including from former President Donald Trump. Both defended their votes at the time by saying they would bring millions in needed road, bridges, broadband and pipeline investments to Nebraska.
Fischer, in person, and Bacon, by letter, touted the bill’s benefits to Nebraskans. She called its investments in infrastructure like roads, bridges, broadband, airports and seaports a “core duty” of government.
“It’s important that we don’t forget any corner in Nebraska,” said Fischer, who described pipelines as part of what connects communities. “We need to be able to make those connections continue. We need to make sure those investments continue.”
Federal officials said they had awarded grants to 35 communities in 20 states in the first round of grants so far. Both Nebraska recipients and utilities in other communities would be eligible to apply for subsequent rounds of funding, Deputy PHMSA Administrator Tristan Brown said.
Brown said these grants aim to help utilities avoid the tragedies that happen when aging gas mains leak or break. Doyle, who carried broken pieces of cast iron pipe when trying to convince MUD board members of the need, said he shares that goal as well.
Most of the cast-iron pipe MUD is replacing is in older parts of east Omaha. Some sections of the utility’s cast-iron pipes date back to the 1800s.
“A strong, vibrant, current and growing infrastructure is a key for our state to grow,” Pillen said.