Omaha Reflects National Trend in Leveling of VMT

26 Mar

The Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) just released its Traffic Growth, Top Intersection, and Top Interchange reports for 2012.

cover-octnov-06-72MAPA does this report every two years by aggregating traffic count data from local jurisdictions, the Nebraska Department of Roads, and the Iowa Department of Transportation. The Top Intersection and Top Interchange reports aggregate counts at locations throughout the metro to identify and rank the intersections moving the highest traffic volumes. The Traffic Growth Report aims to provide a snapshot of the geographic distribution of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the region. Additionally, this report compares the current figures to previous versions of the report to identify trends within each area of the region.

Overall, the Traffic Growth Report shows that VMT has essentially stabilized in the region over the last decade. This trend mirrors the larger national trend that shows a similar flattening of traffic growth. More strikingly, as the population continues to grow, VMT on a national level has decreased in recent years.

However, nationally these trends have not slowed the development and implementation of roadway widening. Locally, MAPA Executive Director, Greg Youell, noted in an interview about the reports that these new figures serve as justification for additional roadway widening in West Omaha and suburban parts of Sarpy County. While systematic road widenings are the status quo, these types of projects have been shown to “induce demand” and generate more vehicle trips– often making congestion issues even worse. The data, as well as findings from MAPA’s Heartland 2050 efforts, don’t seem to align with a call for more road widening. Nor does it align with the goals of the Omaha Master Plan as we’ve recently noted.

As a result of this “capacity-oriented” approach, many communities are now faced with overbuilt roadway networks and extraordinarily high maintenance costs. This has lead Omaha and other communities to consider “road diets” and other approaches to undo past capacity-enhancement projects as well as better accommodate people who walk, bike, or use transit. These types of complete streets have many other benefits, including reducing roadway costs, enhancing property values and economic development, and improving safety for all users.

Do we want to keep pouring more and more money into a transportation system that is increasingly costly, unsustainable and serving only those who drive? Or would we prefer a system that reduces long-term costs and enables all of us to get around no matter which mode we choose?

Please contact MAPA’s Executive Director, Greg Youell, and tell him that the data from the traffic study shows we need investments in road design that matches current trends and regional and local government policies and plans, and which enable safe and convenient transportation choices for everyone. While you’re at it, contact the Mayor and City Council members to tell them the same.

Road Widening Dominates City’s Planned CIP Projects

20 Mar
Omaha 2014-19 CIP Projects

Omaha CIP Projects

In May, City of Omaha citizens will vote on whether or not to authorize the issue of $92 million in general obligation bonds. The bonds would fund projects in five areas: streets and highways ($47,375,000), sewers ($13,616,000), parks and recreation ($14,511,000), public safety ($6,250,000), and public facilities ($10,272,000).

How these bond funds will likely be spent on street and highway projects is outlined in the City’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP). The CIP is a roadmap that provides direction and guidance for the City on planning and managing its capital and infrastructure assets, including transportation-related projects. We did an analysis of past and the most recent draft 2014-19 CIPs to see what street projects would likely be supported by the bond issue if passed.

Our analysis found that spending for road-widening projects, many on the outskirts of Omaha, dominated the list of CIP projects and increased between 2010 and 2014, while spending for streetscape projects, in the urban core, was quite small and decreased over the same time period.

These planned projects appear to be out of alignment with the goals of the Transportation element of the City’s Master Plan:

  • to provide balanced options for enhanced mobility,
  • attain a safe and healthy environment,
  • create livable and connected neighborhoods, and
  • promote economic returns with fiscal stability.
Omaha 2014-19 Planned CIP Projects

Omaha CIP Projects

Streets designed to meet these goals are important for the well-being of Omaha, reducing financial, environmental and health costs while helping us to retain our brightest talent, enhance economic development, and better serve all citizens.

Road widening projects largely lead in the opposite direction. Traffic studies systematically overstate the benefits of road widening projects due to the effects of generated auto traffic or induced travel on roadways. A vicious cycle of road widening, increased demand and sprawl, increased costs for maintenance, and so on continues and makes it more difficult to implement or enhance active and public transportation.

Street projects need to align better with the City Master Plan. Please email Mayor Stothert to let her know you would like a revision to the 2014-2019 CIP that aligns with the  City Master Plan and its support for increasing density and multimodal transportation.

Also urge her to make CIP data available to the public in a clearer and easier-to-understand format—more transparency in spending on transportation projects is needed. The City of Los Angeles’ Open Budget Portal is a good example of how this might be done.

Join us in making the case for safe transportation options for everyone.

Score One for the Master Plan

11 Mar

The National Bike Summit was held last week in Washington, DC. Thanks to the increasing role of social media, those who could not attend could still learn the best nuggets of info by following #nbs14 on Twitter. One of the more interesting tweets that came across was this from @BikeLeague on March 3:

“A plan without any resources isn’t a plan, but a wish,” says Philip Darnton. No leadership, no continuity, no resources = no cycling.

Certainly, a lack of resources (and leadership that is committed to finding and allocating resources to it) is a problem.  It could be said, however, that a slightly modified version of that statement could be true in Omaha:

A Master Plan without the political will to actually implement it isn’t a plan, but a wish.

Omaha is certainly not lacking in plans: We have the 2007 Green Streets Plan and recently approved Environment and Transportation elements of the Master Plan.  2013 also brought a new Traffic Signal Master Plan, The Metro Area Planning Agency (MAPA) has also just started working on a regional Bicycle/Pedestrian Master Plan, and there is a movement afoot to get a Complete Streets policy implemented.

The plans that are already on the books were not just written up and placed in an obscure policy manual; these plans were adopted by the City Council, many by a vote widely in favor, yet, time and time again, the City Council or Planning Commission exempt or change projects so they do not align with the adopted plans. When neighborhoods or businesses are given permission to “opt out” of connectivity, traffic calming or other measures that increase safety for all modes of transportation, all of these plans become weak or even irrelevant.

Pacific Springs neighborhood; photos courtesy of Kevin Flatowicz-Farmer

Pacific Springs; photo courtesy of Google and Kevin Flatowicz-Farmer

When developers or neighborhoods fight connectivity, residents often try to create their own connectivity anyway. Case in point: the Pacific Springs neighborhood, just south of the Village Pointe shopping area in west Omaha. Village Pointe has retail, restaurants, a movie theater, coffee shops, outdoor concerts, and a weekly farmer’s market during the summer. How great to live so close to all of these things! But, to quote an old REM song, “You can’t get there from here.” There is no convenient way for residents to walk or bike to the amazing things literally in their back yards because there is no street connectivity between the subdivision and the commercial development.

The red line shows the route a homeowner currently has to take to get to Village Pointe via planned routes.  The yellow line is a path made by residents (see walking path photos below).  There may not have been political will to create the connectivity in the first place, but neighbors certainly show “If there is a will, there is a way.”  

Photos courtesy of Julie Harris

Pacific Springs walking path

This past week, the City Council was faced with a similar situation to that at Pacific Springs. Neighbors from the Candlewood Hills neighborhood wanted to eliminate an access road that the developer was proposing to build between the neighborhood and a new development next to Costco. Letters written to City Council representative Aimee Melton were consistent in their message: connecting the two areas would bring too much traffic through their neighborhood, threatening the safety of the residents.

According to the Omaha World Herald: “Councilwoman Aimee Melton, who voted against the plan, said she understood the neighbors’ concerns about the connecting road.  “I think Candlewood has existed for 30 years as it is,” she said. “The people don’t want to be connected, and they don’t care if they have to go out and around to get to Costco.”

Many times, as in this case, the concerns that lead to opting out of Master Plans appear to be based on misunderstandings about how road design influences traffic and how traffic works. For example, road connectivity can help to reduce congestion and traffic problems rather than exacerbate them because it offers people on bikes and on foot easier access to where they need to go, reducing the number of drivers on the road, while also enabling cars to take multiple routes to get to their destination.

Councilman Chris Jerram provided thoughtful remarks (begin at 44:56) about the benefits of consistently implementing the Master Plan and the benefits of walkability and bikeability, not just for the vitality of our community, but so that developers and potential business owners can have confidence that they understand the “rules of the road” and that these will be followed if they choose to build in Omaha. He was spot on.

In the end, the Council voted 6-1 (Melton voting no) to approve the plan with the access road. Thank you to the City Council members who voted to support a citizen-supported and council-approved Master Plan.

This time, score one for the Master Plan. We hope for more in the future.

Act Now on LB 1071

24 Feb

bike-lightThe Transportation and Telecommunications Committee is planning to hold a hearing this Tuesday for LB 1071. Please send an email NOW to the members of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, expressing your support—to Chair, Senator Dubas and to Omaha-area Senators on the Committee: Beau McCoy (Elkhorn, far west Omaha), John Murante (SW Omaha, Gretna), and Jim Smith (LaVista, Papillion). Please check this map to see the detailed district boundaries. Several people from Omaha and Lincoln are also planning to testify on Tuesday. If you’d like to join them, please contact Mike Abboud.

This bill, sponsored by Senator Lathrop of Omaha, would task the Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR) with creating standards for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and would also more clearly define a person on a bicycle’s rights to the right of way; that is, “…a person lawfully operating a bicycle on a sidewalk, or across a roadway or shoulder on a crosswalk, shall have all the rights and duties applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstances.” Currently, there is no specific guidance on how to handle bicyclists in those situations.

By adopting standards at the state level, this bill would support the recently-created Traffic Signal Master Plan that was adopted by the City of Omaha in October, 2013. That plan states:

The increase in the use of bicycles both in mixed traffic and on exclusive bicycle facilities may create safety and/or operational issues that could be mitigated with better bicycle detection. The City should implement the detection for bicycles on corridors with bicycle lanes or corridors with high volumes of bicycle traffic. (p. 53)

Of course, these standards would also support the goals outlined in the Transportation and Environmental Elements of the City of Omaha Master Plan and implementation and expansion of the yet-to-be-fully implemented 20 mile bike loop.

LB 1071 would also give NDOR the opportunity to expand standards currently in place for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. National guidelines for “uniform standards for signage and signals” have already been created by NACTO and AASHTO, and in fact, they have been recently updated to include specifications for protected bike lanes and other infrastructure that have been proven to be effective for achieving physical safety of bicyclists and pedestrians. We encourage NDOR to adopt these standards.

Information currently indicates the City of Lincoln will be testifying in support of this bill. Lincoln has already adopted a complete streets policy and this bill would support that policy. Omaha does not yet have a complete streets policy; however, given the goals of the traffic signal and transportation master plans, it would make sense for the City of Omaha to also support this bill. We encourage the City of Omaha to do so.

See more information about the bill from BicycLincoln here. Also on the agenda tomorrow is LB 756, which would help define e-Bikes.

Bills to Support or Oppose in the NE State Legislature

13 Feb

Nebraska_State_LegislatureHere is a rundown of legislative bills currently in the Nebraska Legislature of interest to active and public transportation advocates. Please contact your state senator and the appropriate committee members designated below NOW to express your support or opposition.

LB191 – Nebraska Job Creation and Mainstreet Revitalization Act,

Description:  Introduced by Senator Nordquist, LB191 would provide an investment tax credit equal to 20% of approved costs associated with a qualified rehab of a historic property. The state historic tax credit could be used in combination with the federal historic tax credit allowing 40% to be credited back on your taxes for a qualified rehab.

Analysis: Encouraging infill development is vital for improving multimodal transportation in the Omaha area and elsewhere in the state. The Nebraska State Historic Tax Credit would create incentives for redevelopment in historic downtowns, main streets, and residential neighborhoods.

Recommendation: SUPPORT. Please write to the Revenue committee chairperson, Galen Hadley, and your state senator expressing your support for this bill. For additional talking points, see the Facebook group supporting this bill.

LB756 – Redefine bicycle and motor vehicle

Description:  LB 756, introduced by Senator Smith of Omaha, would update Nebraska statutes by specifically defining electric assist bicycles as “… a device with two or three wheels, fully operative pedals for propulsion by human power, and an electric motor with a capacity not exceeding seven hundred fifty watts which produces no more than one brake horsepower and is capable of propelling the bicycle at a maximum design speed of no more than twenty miles per hour on level ground.

Analysis: Electric assist bicycles have been gaining in popularity and accessibility in recent years, however, there are still many questions for some about where a bicycle ends and a moped begins. This bill would clearly delineate the differences between the two, and provide clarity to decision makers that make rules and regulations on multi-use trails.  Electric assist bicycles, as defined in this law, can provide additional transportation choices to people by making bicycling more accessible to a wider range of people.

Recommendation: SUPPORT. Please write to the Transportation and Telecommunications committee chairperson, Annette Dubas, and your state senator expressing your support for this bill.

LB807 – Change provisions relating to provisional operator’s permits, interactive wireless communication devices, and occupant protection systems and update references to certain federal provisions

Description: LB807 would revise the current law regarding texting and driving, changing it from a secondary offense (meaning, applicable only if a motorist was stopped for breaking an additional law) to a primary offense (meaning, a motorist can be stopped for it on its own).

Analysis: LB 807, introduced by Senator Harms, is consistent with other states that have laws that prohibit texting while operating a motor vehicle.  Currently, 37 states ban texting and driving as a primary offense, while 4 states (currently including NE) have it classified as a secondary offense. Distracted driving is a major safety concern for all transportation users, especially the most vulnerable users on bicycle and on foot.

Recommendation: SUPPORT. Please write to the Transportation and Telecommunications committee chairperson, Annette Dubas, and your state senator expressing your support for this bill.

LB891 – Appropriate funds to the Legislative Council to pay dues under the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact

Description: Introduced by Senator Dubas, LB891 would appropriate funds to pay the back dues dating from 2010 and current dues for the state of Nebraska to continue its membership in the MIPRC (Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission).

Analysis:  The MIPRC brings member states’ leaders together to promote, coordinate and support regional improvements to passenger rail service. Because we lack a comprehensive and coordinated state department of transportation, Nebraska’s involvement in MIPRC provides its main link and source of information on the major federal and regional passenger rail initiatives and programs now underway and possibly missed opportunities for significant economic development in the state. Funding the state’s annual MIPRC dues sends a clear message that the Nebraska Legislature supports the value of improved and increased passenger rail service in Nebraska.

Recommendation: SUPPORT. Please write to the Appropriations committee chairperson, Heath Mello, and your state senator expressing your support for this bill. The hearing for this bill is scheduled for February 13, 2014.

LB1071 – Provide additional rules of the road for bicycles and bikeways

Description: LB1071 introduced by Senator Lathrop of Omaha, would instruct the Nebraska Department of Roads to create minimum safety design criteria for bicycle facilities, create uniform standards for signage and signals related to bikeways and roadways.  The bill would also require people on bicycles to yield to and provide an audible signal to pedestrians when passing, give municipalities the authority to prohibit bicycles on sidewalks in business districts, and specifies that people operating bicycles lawfully are entitled to the same rights and duties as pedestrians in similar circumstances.

Analysis: LB1071 further defines bicyclist and pedestrian under the law, which is positive. The Nebraska Department of Roads won’t have to look far for “uniform standards for signage and signals,” as NACTO and AASHTO have already created national standards, which have recently been updated to include specifications for protected bike lanes and other infrastructure that have been proven to be effective for “achiev(ing) physical safety of bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Recommendation: SUPPORT. Please write to the Transportation and Telecommunications committee chairperson, Annette Dubas, and your state senator expressing your support for this bill.

LB1092 – Authorize issuance of highway construction bonds

Description:  LB1092, introduced by Senator Dubas, would authorize the state to use bond financing for up to $400 million worth of highway projects that would otherwise be funded in a “pay as you go” fashion. Funding for road projects was increased in 2011 with the Build Nebraska Act (LB 84), which earmarked one-fourth of a cent of state sales taxes for highway construction projects.

Analysis: 48 other states (all but Wyoming and Nebraska) currently use bond financing for road projects. Proponents of LB1092 say allowing bond financing will give Nebraska the opportunity to take advantage of low interest rates currently available and get projects moving faster. The traditional methods used to pay for roads and improvements, the gasoline tax and licensing fees, are inadequate and creative and dedicated funding streams are needed. Opponents are concerned about the long term costs. In addition, funding must not be limited to projects that only accommodate one mode of transportation. Specific language in transportation funding bills such as this should include references to multi-modal projects so that eligibility for funding is not left open to interpretation. See the Omaha World Herald article published on February 11, 2014 for further analysis.

Recommendation: OPPOSE unless parity in funding is available for multi-modal transportation. Please write to the Transportation and Telecommunications committee chairperson, Annette Dubas, and your state senator expressing your opposition to the bill unless funding explicitly includes multi-modal transportation. Say that we should be planning for and implementing a more sustainable transportation system that better serves Nebraskans; a system that reduces long-term costs and supports bicycling, walking and public transit.

The Top 10 Omaha-Area Transportation Stories of 2013

31 Dec

Inspired by Governing’s top transportation stories in the U.S., here are some of our top transportation stories in Omaha for 2013. Please leave a comment to let us know what else should have made the list.

1. Transportation a Key Issue in City Mayoral Elections

A person riding in the new bike lane on Leavenworth St.

A person bicycling on Leavenworth St.

Transportation was featured as a key issue in this year’s Omaha elections. The League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha, Green Omaha Coalition, Omaha by Design, and Mode Shift Omaha all asked candidates transportation-related questions through questionnaires and at a Mayoral Forum. Mayoral candidate Dan Welch deserves a special shout out for amusingly claiming during a Mayoral Forum that he drives downtown every day and never sees a person bicycling on Leavenworth Street. He and Dave Nabbity also apparently did not know that the bike/pedestrian coordinator’s salary is paid for by private funds. Mayor Stothert certainly is much more knowledgeable about Omaha’s transportation-related issues, including having served on the Metro Area Planning Agency Board. As a recent Omaha World Herald article describes, since her election she has been supportive of several bike- and pedestrian-related projects. Our task now is to make a stronger case to her and other city officials for the fiscal and other benefits of multi-modal transportation.

2. Omaha Wins! for Worst Intersection in the U.S.

A proud moment this past February was Omaha’s victory on the DC Streetsblog—voters across the country chose the Millard intersection at 132nd Street, Industrial Road, Millard Avenue, and L Street as the worst in the U.S. The Omaha World Herald also covered the story. Alas, it seems it will take more than national humiliation to change the culture of car-centric road building in our fine (as long as you drive a car) city.

3. Spending Millions on Roadway Expansion

This fall the State of Nebraska completed a $401 million project to widen I-80 near Lincoln (42 miles) while also implementing a new state law that funnels sales tax toward road construction because funding is perceived as insufficient to pay for highway construction. Among road projects in Omaha was included $1.8 million to widen 96th Street (.4 miles). Research suggests traffic studies systematically overstate benefits of these types of road widening projects due to the effects of generated traffic or induced travel on roadways; that is, as Todd Litman describes it, when “road improvements that reduce travel costs attract trips from other routes, times and modes, and encourage longer and more frequent travel….This consists in part of induced travel, which refers to increased total vehicle miles travel (VMT) compared with what would otherwise occur.” So a vicious cycle of widening, increased demand and sprawl, increased costs, and so on continues.

4. Serious Problems on 32 Ave

Ironically, while few seem to bat an eye at the costs of road widening, the city or state decided last month that spending a little more than $300,000 on a .8 mile project to slow down traffic while also adding a protected bike lane and pedestrian safety amenities was “too costly” on 32 Ave. This is in spite of the fact that federal funding for the project had already been secured and the funding was meant to specifically go to bike/pedestrian projects. Our blog post about this project describes how 32 Ave is emblematic of several problematic issues at the city, state and federal level impeding progress towards creating complete streets in Omaha.

5. IBM Smart Cities Report Highlights Problems with Sprawl

The release of the IBM Smart Cities report this spring highlighted Omaha’s growth problem. Among other things, the company’s Smarter Cities Challenge study of Omaha said that Omaha’s tendency to grow westward in suburban developments will be increasingly costly and that promoting Omaha’s urban development would be more cost-effective. Another recommendation was raising property taxes in suburban areas to better reflect the true, higher cost of providing necessities such as police and fire protection, sewers, streets and street maintenance, public schools, libraries, and parks in suburban areas.

6. More People are Bicycling

Not all the news this year was depressing. The League of American Bicyclists reported last month that bicycle commuting in Omaha has been climbing sharply–124.3% from 2000 to 2012. Completion of the South Omaha Trail (hopefully soon) will no doubt help to increase this amount even more by adding a much-needed east-west trail connector. Nebraska also placed 2nd in the country for most bike trips per capita during the National Bike Challenge, the first bike corral in the city was placed in Benson, Omaha B-cycle expanded, and bicycle valet parking was bigger and better than ever at the College World Series.

7. Improvements for Public Transit

We also saw several improvements and new possibilities for growth with public transit this year. Metro Transit introduced new fare boxes and opened a new, bike-friendly, North Omaha Transit Center. State senators approved increased funding for public transit, including a $1 million increase for Metro Transit and express bus #93 was saved from the chopping block and redesigned into a better route. Finally, the Central Omaha Transit Alternatives Analysis provided exciting possibilities for Bus Rapid Transit and streetcar in the midtown central corridor.

8. Walkability Gets Some Attention

Walkability received some well-deserved attention this year as well. A walking workshop held with community leaders last spring outlined an action plan for improving walkability in Omaha. We also had the great pleasure of hearing the highly convincing Jeff Speck speak about the importance of creating a walking-friendly city at this year’s Heartland Active Transportation Summit. New wayfinding signs were also placed in Downtown Omaha.

9. Some Movement on Regional Passenger Rail

Regional passenger rail also made the news this year with the Chicago to Council Bluffs-Omaha Regional Passenger Rail System Planning Study. Research suggests a significant return on investment if the project is implemented. There is strong support in Iowa for the project.

10.   Several Projects with Potential

Last but not least, several exciting projects were proposed or got under way this year. Emerging Terrain’s Belt Line Project was no doubt the most exciting, proposing to repurpose the old Belt Line rail line to include light rail and a trail, spurring development along this abandoned route. The City also held a public meeting on the Crossroads redevelopment and funding was approved by the City Council to begin needed studies for expanding the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to connect to TD Ameritrade Park.