Our Analysis of the Mayoral Candidates

3 May

We are pleased so many issues relevant to transportation have been included in the mayoral debates and forums over the past several weeks. We’ve come a long way in these discussions since four years ago! Policies and practices implemented by the Mayor’s office obviously have a profound effect on our ability to achieve our vision and mission.

That is why we wanted to take this opportunity to summarize some of the key policy and practice areas that have been up for discussion and debate. These all play an important role in whether or not Omaha can be a city with a great, equitable, and affordable transportation system; where anyone can safely and efficiently get to where they need to go whether they own a car or not.

Please weigh these issues and do your own investigating (including reading responses to our questionnaire) and then VOTE on May 9. The future of our city is in the hands of you, the Omaha voter.

Growth and the Transportation System

The two candidates could not be more different on their approach to city growth, which plays an essential role in our ability (or not) to create a connected and viable multi-modal transportation system.

Mayor Stothert has repeatedly said she supports suburban development (balanced with infill) and annexation, saying at the Omaha by Design (ObD) mayoral forum “we need to develop the remaining land available in West Omaha.” For anyone who came to Chuck Marohn’s recent talk in Omaha or is familiar with the work of Strong Towns, you know this is not sustainable. The City is already 56 years behind on resurfacing the roads we have and the mayor has acknowledged as much. If Omaha continues to add more lane miles (in the form of new roads and widened roads) than our taxes can maintain, we will continue to fall further behind. When we can’t afford the roads we have, the only solutions are to either let roads deteriorate (as we’re seeing in some neighborhoods) or raise taxes. This low-density suburban growth is not only expensive, it makes it all-the-more difficult to sustain a viable, connected, multi-modal transportation system.

Senator Mello has embraced a more conservative (Strong Towns) approach. At the ObD Forum and our member meeting, Mello discussed findings from the IBM Smarter Cities study done a few years ago, which concluded that Omaha had three viable paths in the future: 1) to invest in density inside the 680 loop, 2) reduce services, or 3) increase taxes. His strategy would be to focus on growth in the urban core and put a pause on annexation. From a transportation perspective, more density in the urban core will enable more resources to be shifted from street widening and repair to other modes. Transit will be more viable in denser areas.

Transparency and the Capital Improvement Program (CIP)

Both Mayor Stothert and Senator Mello have noted that there are problems with the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) process. The CIP is vitally important because it is how and where transportation projects are slated to be implemented. As we have been discussing in our Transparency series on the CIP, there are several problems with Omaha’s CIP currently—more than we anticipated when we started a year-long study. Problems include inaccurate and missing data, lack of accountability, and little opportunity for citizen engagement. Some of these problems existed prior to the current Mayoral administration, but the current Mayor doesn’t seem to have done much to improve things. Senator Mello accurately pointed out at the ObD forum that the CIP process is flawed, there is no community engagement, and the public does not trust where city funding goes. We agree. Mayor Stothert indicated at our monthly meeting that the City is working with a start-up collaborative to help improve the CIP platform (listen here; start at 45:45). Senator Mello has said he will “prioritize shifting the CIP process from an internally-focused priority process to a public-focused one.”

Complete Streets

The City of Omaha adopted an award-winning Complete Streets policy in August 2015, which should enable implementation of the goals and objectives of the City’s transportation master plan. These goals and objectives align with Mode Shift’s mission and vision. Complete Streets is:

a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_streets)

Omaha’s Complete Streets policy includes a detailed timeline for implementation (see p. 9), including a plan for active implementation in 2018. We have been anxious for the City to start implementation as soon as possible (there is nothing keeping them from getting started now) so we were happy to hear the Mayor say repeatedly at the ObD forum and at our monthly meeting that the City is implementing the Complete Streets policy already. Unfortunately, upon further research and follow up, it’s clear that either the Mayor doesn’t understand what Complete Streets means and how it should be implemented or she has been misled by her staff. There does not seem to be any evidence that Complete Streets is being implemented yet and we know from our participation on the Complete Streets Stakeholder Committee that city employees are still very much in discussion about implementation.

Senator Mello brought up at the ObD forum that there had been no discussion about Complete Streets implementation with the recent announcement of 81 miles of resurfacing. This is indeed the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate certain aspect of the street and how some might be made safer for all users. As noted in the Complete Streets policy (section 2.5, p. 1):

The City shall approach every transportation improvement and project phase as an opportunity to create safer, more accessible streets for all users. The City shall establish a procedure by which Complete Streets is incorporated into the routine planning, design, implementation and operation of all transportation infrastructure upon adoption of this policy. (emphasis added)

Asked about this at our meeting, the Mayor said that Complete Streets only applies to new developments and redevelopment projects, not in cases of resurfacing. Another person asked for an example of a redevelopment project that might apply and gave the example of Blackstone. The Mayor also said this wasn’t a large enough area for Complete Streets to be implemented. She couldn’t give examples of where the policy has been implemented. You can listen to the back-and-forth discussion on this here (start at 35:58). Given the Mayor’s lack of understanding of the policy, and past history working with Public Works, we have serious concerns about Complete Streets ever truly being implemented under her leadership.

Senator Mello said at our meeting and the ObD forum that he believes Omaha has to become a city where anyone can get around without a car. Implementing Complete Streets is long overdue. He also said he will bring on new Planning and Public Works directors.

Vision Zero

Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. It is being adopted in many cities across the country and aligns well with many existing Complete Streets policies as well as Mode Shift’s vision and mission.  

Senator Mello has made Vision Zero a key element of his neighborhood safety platform and discussed this at our monthly meeting. We were pleased to also hear Mayor Stothert say at our monthly meeting that she is interested in creating a task force out of her Active Living Advisory Committee (ALAC) to look into implementing Vision Zero. So far, it appears ALAC has put limited recommendations forward to the Mayor, so this is a positive direction.

Bus Rapid Transit

We are excited about the planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) coming to Dodge Street. This is a project of Metro Omaha Transit, funded in part by federal TIGER funding, Metro resources and philanthropic grants. We hope the BRT will lay the groundwork to truly transform the transit system in Omaha. It’s worth supporting for a variety of reasons laid out here. Both candidates are supportive of the BRT. However, to date, the City of Omaha has provided only in-kind support to the project.

The Streetcar

The Streetcar has gotten a lot of attention in this election. It’s too early to tell if it is a good economic investment and what kind of impact it may have on transportation access and mobility. As we’ve noted previously, if it can lead to greater density and transportation access for people in Omaha, that could be good. We think the BRT currently is the better investment for improving access and mobility. Mayor Stothert supports continuing to study the streetcar project; Senator Mello has called for a pause in the process.

With both the BRT and Streetcar, there has been some concern about costs. The BRT is much cheaper at $30 million than the projected $156 million price tag for the proposed streetcar. It’s important in these discussions though to consider that funding comes from different sources that cannot always be moved from one project to another. We should also consider the cost of these projects in relation to what we typically spend supporting automobile-only driving–$30 million is about the same cost of 6 miles of road widening (which we know doesn’t ultimately reduce congestion) and $156 million is about what we spend on one interstate exchange or 16 miles of I-80 highway widening.

Don’t forget to vote on May 9th!

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