Local elections are so impactful to the future of transportation and mobility in Omaha. Take a look at the following questions from MSO and answers from candidates Pete Festersen & Sarah Johnson, running for City Council in District 1. Answers appear exactly how they were received and each district will have its own blog post with all candidates’ answers.
What are Omaha’s most pressing transportation needs? If elected, how will you address these needs?
Pete Festersen, D1 incumbent: “Omaha needs to do a better job at improving its public transit system and increasing opportunities for walkability, biking, recreational trails and alternative transit. As a council member I have consistently advocated and sought funding for such projects whether it was Omaha By Design Master Plan Amendments, Complete Streets, Transit Oriented Development, Vision Zero, ORBT, Keystone Trail Connections to Cunningham Lake, scooters, bike share, and many other projects. Clearly we need an overall strategy, however, to better connect those that need transit and to attract the skilled workforce of the future that is key to our economic growth. I would welcome the opportunity to work on this strategy and think now is the time in coordination with a growing coalition of advocates.”
Sarah Johnson, D1 candidate: “The most pressing need involves a shift away from car culture, achieved by communication around the importance of transportation systems and networks holistically, not just our current “car city” narrative supporting the utter dependence on cars. We need leaders who use active transportation so they have the perspective needed to really understand the issues first hand. One easily achievable step in that direction is redefining sidewalks as part of the transportation system and treating them accordingly. Right now they are not well defined and certainly not treated as important transportation corridors by the city. We’ve recently seen how simultaneously crucial, yet disregarded, our sidewalks are after winter storms and by amending the municipal code, we can classify sidewalks as part of our transportation system. Many other cities do this and we should too. ORBT and other public transportation doesn’t work without clear sidewalks. People with disabilities are essentially stuck without options during the winter due to the lack of prioritization with sidewalk clearing. Also, regular painting of crosswalks and stop bars and simply adjusting crossing times would be helpful. This is the first step toward a more equitable system of transportation. Baseline but essential.”
Should the Planning and Public Works Departments have separate directors, or should they be combined into a single entity?
Pete Festersen: “I’m open to the idea of a single entity. Although that would create a really large department with many different functions that could be difficult to manage, I would definitely like to see improved coordination between the departments when it comes to embracing new ideas, design principles, and more progressive development and transit concepts. That has been a challenge in my work for sure and greater accountability would be welcome.”
Sarah Johnson: “I don’t think they need to be combined necessarily, but currently they seem to be completely disjointed and working counter to one another instead of collaboratively. Constant communication and respect is key and needs to be addressed or the Directors should be replaced. Currently the two departments don’t seem to work well together and certainly don’t seem to share a vision for the city. I’d like to see the Planning Department actually make the plans for PW to implement. Right now, too much of the planning and direction comes from the PW department and I don’t understand why the only thing they seem to care about is moving cars quickly through an area. The Planning Department has good plans; let’s implement them already! Frankly, inter departmental communication across the city needs to be improved in addition to the way the city communicates with its residents.”
Last year, Omaha approved $200M in bonds to close the funding gap for street maintenance for five years. Is this a good long-term solution for funding our street maintenance needs? If so, why, and if not, why not?
Pete Festersen: “I believe this was a necessary step to address the poor condition of our street infrastructure throughout the city and to more proactively address potholes and unimproved roads. I was disappointed, however, that it didn’t also include allocations for pedestrian, bike, trail system and alternative transit improvements. That needs to be our next step.”
Sarah Johnson: “It’s irresponsible to use a bond for maintenance of this sort; this is a misused band aid and not a good long term solution. I’m upset that no one brought up the fact that if we use this huge amount of money to just re-build a system that we know is unsustainable, we’re not really making progress. The only way I would’ve been on board with this bond initiative, is if we said from the start that it would be used to build back more sustainable systems that don’t only allow car drivers to feel accommodated. As long as we keep just building wider, faster, smoother roads for cars, that’s what we’ll see: more cars that continue to decimate roads. Induced demand also works with non-car modes and I think we should’ve mandated that the roads will be built back with a more equitable mode split (not just all for cars). If we build safe and connected protected micro-mobility lanes, people will use them. If we make sidewalks wider and set back from the fast moving car traffic, more folks will be able to feel safe using them as well. Omaha is addicted to cars and it’s costing us big time. Bonds should fund innovation and long term investment and this isn’t that. The impacts of countless TIF handouts should be reassessed and the resources we’re giving to developers could instead stay in the city’s hands to fill potholes instead of using more tax dollars in the form of a bond.”
Which issue is of greater importance to our city moving forward: transportation accessibility or average commute time?
Pete Festersen: “Transportation accessibility.”
Sarah Johnson: “Accessibility of course! But, while we’re talking about commute time: we need to make sure that non-car commutes can be competitive time-wise. Take for example the time commitment needed for some public transportation trips in Omaha. We have to be realistic with how we incentivize travel modes. If I need to get from home to work and can do so in a car in 15 minutes but a bus ride (with likely transfers) would take over an hour, I’ll continue to see my car as the only feasible option. So I guess the answer is both, because even if it’s an accessible bus stop, if I have to allow over an hour to just get to work, that’s not attainable in reality.”
Much of our current transportation infrastructure excludes people who cannot drive for reasons of age, ability, or financial means. What will you do to make sure that Omaha accommodates the transportation needs (equitable access to employment, commerce and services) of all citizens?
Pete Festersen: “This is a really important issue that also impacts social determinants of health and disproportionately impacts areas of poverty. Equitable access – per my comment above – needs to be part of an overall transportation strategy for it to be effective and now is the time to pursue that overall strategy.”
Sarah Johnson: “First of all, we need to acknowledge it’s an issue. Currently my mind is on snow clearing of sidewalks, intersections, and bus stops. I think it is crucial that Omaha gets sidewalks recognized as part of the transportation system and takes responsibility for their maintenance (as I mentioned already). I’d ensure that PW isn’t being inefficient and thoughtless when building curbs that don’t follow ADA law, just to have to go back years later and pour them correctly. I’d vote NO on increasing speed limits, since Vision Zero says speed = death. I wouldn’t allow e-bike bans to get to the point that the Parks Department has made and installed signs before it even comes to council. There have been so many votes this year and over the past decade that don’t align with the City’s supposed goals and policies. Urging for consistency in policies and action is the first step toward a more equitable Omaha.”
How often do you or your family use active modes of transportation such as a Metro bus, bicycling, or walking?
Pete Festersen: “Walk and bike several times per week. Bus/ORBT on occasion.”
Sarah Johnson: “Pre-pandemic: every day! I don’t actually own a car, but my husband does so once in a while I’ll borrow it. We both primarily use our electric bikes for daily transportation, yes, year round. Oftentimes we walk to the post office or coffee shops in Dundee and Benson. We ride to the grocery store, pre-covid to restaurants, bars and friends’ houses, and now even to deliver yard signs for the campaign! I used to use my bike on the front of the bus a lot when I had meetings downtown. I am sad to have recently learned that you can’t take an ebike on the ORBT! I’ve reached out to Metro and they’re looking into what can be done about that as I think it’s a poor policy that hopefully can change.”
Do you support expanding the city’s recently-passed Transit Oriented Development (TOD) policy to additional corridors/neighborhoods, including allowing home owners to construct Accessory Dwelling Units on their property?
Pete Festersen: “I worked directly with advocates, the planning department and associated neighborhoods to unanimously pass the initial TOD policy and master plan amendment and as planning committee chair I would continue to advocate for its expansion.”
Sarah Johnson: “Yes! We’re in the midst of a housing crisis and everything we can do to address it with urgency should be considered. Allowing for and incentivizing creation of the “Missing Middle” type of housing is crucial to address the housing shortage we’re seeing in Omaha currently. We need to make sure that the TOD corridors expand into more of Omaha and ADUs are another important piece of the puzzle. Form based code is something that needs to be utilized so we can really respond to the growth and density needs we’re seeing, not just considered unattainable because it isn’t the way it has been done in the past. We need to be nimble as we adapt to changing needs in housing.”
Do you support Metro Transit converting to a Regional Transit Authority under Nebraska Law with an elected board of directors?
Pete Festersen: “Yes, I see this mechanism as holding the most promise for making innovative public transit improvements in the short-term.”
Sarah Johnson: “Generally, yes; I’m all for expanding the funding for Metro and this is probably a good way to do that. I will tell you based on my very short experience with running for office, that it’s kind of awful and the barriers (especially financially) are daunting. It will be crucial to have a diverse set of representatives on the Regional Transit Authority and I’m afraid that if it’s not done in a more intentional manner, we’ll just end up with a bunch of old white men making decisions, as per usual. It’s time to address systemic racism and we’ll need to make sure that the historically marginalized communities are really able to have a big part in shaping the vision for this new entity. I do love the idea of connecting the region with transit as so many people travel regularly between Lincoln and Omaha that it only makes sense to support that movement with better options than single occupancy vehicles or the wrong time of day Amtrak options we have currently.”
Omaha just hired a Vision Zero coordinator. What are your expectations of the role they will play in trying to eliminate traffic deaths in Omaha?
Pete Festersen: “The Vision Zero coordinator started last week at city hall and I have placed him on the next city council public works committee agenda. My expectations are that he will get engaged with all planning and public works projects to improve the design and construction of our physical environment for the benefit of pedestrian and bike safety and to reduce traffic fatalities. It is critical that the departments give him true access and authority which was not previously afforded to the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator.”
Sarah Johnson: “Expectations or desires, as they may differ?! I think that the new role was intentionally positioned in the PW department so that they’ll have more control of what the new hire can and can’t achieve. My expectation is that, as we’ve heard, he’ll be stuck doing ADA paperwork for the first few years. My hope is that he is a good conduit between the community and the city and can actually have the authority to make real changes in the best interest of safety for our community. We know car crashes are more likely than gun homicides and we really need to get real about better road design as a tool rather than just enforcement with police. I’m cautiously optimistic overall.”
Ten years ago, Omaha was promised a protected bike lane on Harney Street and it was never built. What will you do to ensure that project is completed in 2021?
Pete Festersen: “I would support placing funding for the project in the budget/CIP and work with advocates and the council member from that district to help make it happen.”
Sarah Johnson: “It’s hard for me to put into words how this project (or lack thereof) makes me feel. As one of the main organizers for the Heyday on May Day showcasing this project as a demonstration event all those years ago, I was so excited to see this project succeed, especially since we had the neighborhood and city hall, including Mayor (Suttle) on board. Then the election changed everything. Leadership and local elections matter! This protected bike lane, like many other bike infrastructure projects, just are not a priority for the current administration or City Council. We were told to get it into the CIP, so we did! Then it was removed without discussion. Then it got booted from being a publicly funded project to the pet project of Metro Smart Cities and Bike Walk Nebraska with private funding! It’s being delayed once again, despite the fact that we know pop up projects (especially during Covid when many cities are doing all they can to rush projects through to allow safe transportation and recreation outdoors) can be done quickly. It’s also problematic to me that it’s being considered a pilot project. After the “pilot” bike corral in Benson that had no data collected, no communication about success or failure, nothing indicating the City took the traditional “pilot” considerations into their decision making, was ripped out with a bike attached, I’m not too hopeful that this one will be done well either. Sour grapes, sure.”
Finally, if you could magically make one change to the transportation environment in Omaha, without consideration of cost or political consequence, what would it be?
Pete Festersen: “A multi-faceted public transit system that served the needs of all citizens and offered the amenities needed to attract the skilled workforce of the future while increasing innovative economic development within the urban core. (Oh, and a world class bike and walking trail system)”
Sarah Johnson: “A city wide safe, protected, connected micro-mobility network! I’m talking about lanes physically separated from fast moving car traffic, that allow for people on analog or ebikes, cargo bikes, scooters, mobility devices, etc. to feel able and encouraged to leave their car at home. Good for physical and mental health and important for the planet! Oh, and better funding for Metro so that buses can run frequently to the airport and late into the night so that drunk driving isn’t as prevalent. Oh, to dream! Mostly, new leadership who will take all of the data and plans and will make things happen! We know there’s a need; we know how to do it. Now let’s stop making excuses and make real progress!”