Heavy Rains Lead to Closed Roads and Diverted Traffic

May 31, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Highway 75 traffic in Auburn, Nebraska. A silver minivan is followed by a blue semi, both driving along the road.
Nebraska's highway funding will see a 47 percent boost with the passage of an infrastructure bill, but Congressman Smith warns of its potential inflationary effects. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Heavy rains this week have led to large sections of I-29 reclosing due to flood waters. The effects of the closure go far beyond the road itself. Re-routed traffic can be a blessing and a curse.

When I-29 is closed south of Omaha, the Iowa Department of Transportation recommends a detour on I-80 to Des Moines, and then south on I-35. If you’re driving from Omaha to St. Joseph, Missouri, that adds about 160 miles to your trip. So instead, many drivers are choosing a non-interstate route: Nebraska Highway 75.

75 goes straight through Auburn, Nebraska, a town of less than 4,000 people.

Mary Michel works at the Shell Speedee Mart in Auburn.

“When you’re used to going 75 miles an hour on the interstate, when you’re down to going 65 with bumper to bumper traffic, it gets very very frustrating for the people that are travelling through,” Michel said.

All those drivers have to stop for gas somewhere, though, and in that respect the closures this year on I-29 have been good for business at the Speedee Mart.

“Two to three, four times the volume increases, since the middle of March when the rains started, it’s been very very traffic heavy,” Michel said.

There are downsides, though, to bringing interstate traffic onto a two-line highway.

Eric Jones is a Lieutenant for the Nebraska State Highway Patrol. He says the extra traffic led to dangerous situations on highway 75 the last few months.

“During that time we had two separate fatality crashes on highway 75. We also received numerous complaints from local residents because of their concern that the increased traffic was causing the roadway to be unsafe. We had a lot of complaints for improper passing and speed violations,” Jones said.

To try and keep drivers safe and deal with three times more traffic than usual, Jones says the Highway Patrol moved resources around during flooding earlier this year.

“We directed extra troopers to the area for those eight weeks from the morning to the evening hours to make sure we were there to help the local sheriff’s office with the increased traffic volume, to address the dangerous driving behavior, and to address those citizen complaints,” Jones said.

The last closure lasted eight weeks. I-29 was then reopened for a short period of time before re-closing after heavy rains.

Scott Suhr is a Transportation Planner for the Iowa Department of Transportation. He says the interstate will likely stay closed for a few days at least.

“It appears that sometime maybe mid next week the waters could start to recede. A lot of that depends on not only rainfall in our area, but also the current release at Gavin’s point and also just how quickly the water goes away with the saturated ground. So there’s some factors involved so the timing, we’ll just have to kind of pay attention and kind of follow it and see what it looks like,” Suhr said.

Once water recedes, the DOT can evaluate if flood waters caused damage to the road.

“We’re hoping that some of the improvements we made with some of the areas that we’ve repaired will help minimize any damage, but like I said at this time we just don’t know,” Suhr said.

After earlier flooding, some roads would have still been underwater if it weren’t for DOT fixes.

“Well on Iowa 2 we actually had a dam that we built to get traffic over across to Iowa 2. Unfortunately with all the rain that we’ve had, that has been compromised.”

Iowa 2 between Nebraska City and I-29 is closed now. Suhr says this many closures so quickly is unusual.

“It’s not normal, no. These are considered 100 year floods, and they’re very unlikely, but unfortunately for us it’s happened twice in the last eight or nine years,” Suhr said.

Back in Auburn, unusual traffic is back for the second time this year. Kelsi Heard works at the Amigos restaurant in Auburn.

“It’s been a little bit hard to keep up with, but business is definitely and ever since it’s closed recently, it kind of slowed down when the interstate opened back up, but ever since it’s closed again we can tell. Now it’s just going and going and going and going,” Heard said.

Heard says the extra traffic is starting to wear on residents of Auburn.

“We’re over it. We’re just over it. We’re ready to have our little small town back. It’s nice and quiet,” Heard said.

Quiet in Auburn will have to wait until water goes down and travelers can get back to business as usual.