Today we’ll hear from Cammy Watkins and Jen Bauer, both running for Omaha City Council in District 3. Current Councilor, Chris Jerram is vacating his seat so we have all new candidates to choose from! Comments are published exactly as received.
What are Omaha’s most pressing transportation needs? If elected, how will you address these needs?
Cammy Watkins: “The lack of transportation options beyond private vehicle transport is the most pressing need. I would like to initiate a revision and update of the City’s Master Plan. It is out of date and does not match the needs of the City today. With this revision we can then incorporate elements from the AFFH, the CSDG and other plans that Omaha has invested time and money to develop but never implement.”
Jen Bauer: “I believe that our transportation options well funded for a city of our size. I believe our transportation system could be more robust, have better routes if it were better funded. I would support funding increases for our transportation needs, if they addressed the needs to the community.”
Should the Planning and Public Works Departments have separate directors, or should they be combined into a single entity?
Cammy Watkins: “From research, I learned it is not uncommon for a City to have Directors for both departments. Consolidation of the Departments could bring greater continuity, but I don’t feel like that is not the main issue in Omaha. So under the current City leadership I don’t know if that would solve the problem. We need to change City leadership at the Mayor level and then talk about breaking up the silos and mentality of complacency that is prevalent in our local government. However, if we are looking at cost savings to address the economic impacts of COVID, I would recommend Department director consolidation over employee layoffs.”
Jen Bauer: “I understand the thinking that the two should be combined but I would prefer that they should work in conjunction with each other. I don’t feel that a city of our size would allow for a Planning director to be able to focus on the bigger picture while completing the tasks of the Public Works director. While PW needs to focus on issues that arise in the here and now, they also need to think of solutions that would help the future. At the same time, the Planning Director should be open to forward thinking solutions to current issues. There needs to be a culture shift where we ask each director to be able to chart out their vision for a sustainable Omaha.”
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?
Cammy Watkins: “No, I think the bond would have been beneficial if it was focused on infrastructure improvements, but for maintenance, its a band-aid at best. Reviewing the Omaha 2021 budget, the capital dollars from this bond being used for maintenance aren’t even going to impact most streets. So this additional tax burden impacting all of Omaha residents, won’t be realized by all of us. And in true Omaha fashion certain districts are getting way more investment than others for the repairs. Oh and there was indications that there will be a tax bump that won’t be felt till 2022 (after the election year).”
Jen Bauer: “While the program has some merit, it is not the best long term solution. It doesn’t fully address the issues of the unimproved streets or provide for a better solution than the creation of improvement districts which are set up by neighbors. It doesn’t help the areas impacted the most by poor street conditions. The maintenance plan is better than the previous plan, but the increase to our tax base doesn’t justify ignoring that we have an issue in north and south Omaha with quality roads that still isn’t being addressed.”
Which issue is of greater importance to our city moving forward: transportation accessibility or average commute time?
Cammy Watkins: “Transportation accessibility and really equitable mobility options since not all of us commute, but all of us must move about this city.”
Jen Bauer: “Transportation Accessibility. We need to move back to a time where people lived closer to their places of employment. Not farther out.”
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?
Cammy Watkins: “I have been diving into literature about building strong towns and the concept of mobility justice. Knowing that the ConnectGo initiative is in place and that many studies and reports have been commissioned on transportation access in our city. I would first find out what are the barriers to implementing the recommendations from these reports and studies. Then I would work with my partners in the Council to eliminate these barriers and establish more urgent timelines from implementation. The research is complete, the information about what is needed is clear, what is missing is the political will to just get sh*t done!”
Jen Bauer: “I will support funding to bring our infrastructure up to modern day standards if it truly addresses the inequalities. We need a more robust North/South bus, a better option to get out west, and we need to somehow make the stops accessible and safe for all riders.”
How often do you or your family use active modes of transportation such as a Metro bus, bicycling, or walking?
Cammy Watkins: “Honestly, not as often as I would like to if I had a more walkable city or mass transit options. Whenever I travel I utilize public transit and/or walk and I love it and am always sad Omaha doesn’t have these same options available.”
Jen Bauer: “I walk to establishments in my neighborhood. If I return to my office, which is less than a mile away, I will either ride my bike or take the #11 bus to Aksarben where my office is located.”
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?
Cammy Watkins: “Ok, so I had to google Accessory Dwelling Units and I do have to say that is part of the problem with the TOD and really ANY city project. We don’t speak to people in language and ways that bring them along with us in our plans. Change is hard for most people and the idea of something new and seemingly invasive is scary. However ADUs are not that, our city has tons of them they are called “Mother-in-Law” houses. I absolutely support allowing those to be built and I support in theory the expansion of the TOD policy to more neighborhoods (because in reality its better than the current zoning allows). In practice we have to do a better job of hearing the criticisms and working in partnership with the community to address it. And by we, I mean people who actually know how to have difficult conversations with people about change and redevelopment, not the Policy wonks that develop the plan. Send a few of us Community Organizers in to work WITH the community on the implementation plan and we can see dramatically different outcomes.”
Jen Bauer: “I believe we need to look at expanding the TOD to areas of the ACI zoning. I have supported the rezoning to allow ADU’s but before we push this, we also need to address the fact that many of the ADU’s will only increase car traffic and usage if no there are no viable transportation options.”
Do you support Metro Transit converting to a Regional Transit Authority under Nebraska Law with an elected board of directors?
Cammy Watkins: “YUP! I would love to see Metro move from a privately held entity and become part of the local government departmental infrastructure.”
Jen Bauer: “Yes. I believe this would help to gain more funding and overall acceptance in Omaha.”
Omaha recently hired a Vision Zero coordinator. What are your expectations of the role they will play in trying to eliminate traffic deaths in Omaha?
Cammy Watkins: “That they look beyond vehicular causes and consider how we reach zero traffic fatalities through a multimodal approach to equitable mobility access. This means taking into consideration not only vehicular crashes, but bicycling infrastructure, adequate space on streets for safe use by all modes of movement as well as city design and development which can inadvertently promote unsafe modes of transportation.”
Jen Bauer: “If the state required drivers education in order to get a drivers license and allowed laws to be passed regarding texting and driving, we may not need a Vision Zero Coordinator. This coordinator also needs to work to change the culture of car dependency and overall bad driving.”
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?
Cammy Watkins: “Listen, there were a lot of things promised for Harney Street (which is the street I live on btw). I can’t promise I will work to ensure the project will be completed in 2021 because, you know global pandemic, racial inequity…. I can’t promise that I will make that a priority in 2021, but I can say that I will find out what the delays are and keep the community informed on it and push to move forward on the commitments that were made so that our bike users have more secure and connected routes.”
Jen Bauer: “I wasn’t aware of this promise. And I don’t honestly know the plan. However, I’m not sure that Harney is now the best location for this, depending on where it starts. Harney near 40th street doesn’t seem safe. But I would look into partnering with both Planning and Public Works to potentially change the rules on stationary bike lane markings at least near intersections/turn lanes, to promote safety.”
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?
Cammy Watkins: “Implement an above or underground mass transit system that has auxiliary lines which get folks to the edge of neighboring metro centers (Lincoln, Bellevue, CB, Bennington) and serves the core neighborhoods of Omaha (is that one thing?!? Meh its one thing).”
Jen Bauer: “I would stop approving the creation of flat parking lots and parking garages. I would make parking more expensive to push people to think of other options to driving to work, unless it was a car pool. It would involve a culture change of moving the bus and it’s riders away from being viewed as “less than”. I would add buses and routes further out west that weren’t an hour to go 20 minutes. I would ask leaders to lead by example and use public transportation.”