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City Council Candidate Questionnaires

25 Feb

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 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. Today, we start with two candidates from D1!

Pete Festersen is smiling at the camera in a dark navy suit with white shirt and blue tie.
Pete Festersen, 12 year incumbent.

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 is standing in her back yard wearing a dark top with zip front vest and dark jeans.
Sarah Johnson, MSO Co-founder

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: “Yes, I see this mechanism as holding the most promise for making innovative public transit improvements in the short-term.”

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!”

TIF for the Crossroads?

21 Feb
ID: The corner of 72nd & Dodge looking easy from the ORBT stop at the big sign that says “The Crossroads.” A pedestrian is walking in knee deep snow toward a crosswalk blocked by a red truck. Snowy bike racks and trash cans are in the foreground with a bit of clear pavement. Mostly snow covered sidewalks. Photo by Cindy Tefft of our Walkability Team.

72nd & Dodge is one of the most well-known intersections in the city. 81,000 people drive through this intersection daily and for the past several decades, they have driven past a dead or dying mall.  

While almost any development at this location will be better than the current status, the redevelopment has the ability to bring real vibrancy to the heart of the city. Mode Shift Omaha is excited to see how our city can intensify the core areas and make walking, biking, and transit more accessible to more people through thoughtful and intentional design.

This Tuesday, Omaha’s City Council will vote to approve this $80M TIF request. We sent a list of suggestions to Lockwood as well as the Council (see below to download) and were grateful to have been invited to a conversation with the developers who were open to some of MSO’s suggestions. Now we’ll see if the City grants their request. If you’d like to speak to Council before they vote, go to the City Council Agenda here to register and read more. We’ll be there speaking in opposition, since we don’t think TIF is truly benefitting the public in a way that justifies this amount of our tax dollars.

Planning for people first

How does it feel to arrive at this space without a car? Based on the current plan, a person must cross 350 feet of parking before they get to the first shop. Pedestrians are further away than the worst available parking spot.

Rather than having all the car parking in one big surface lot, parking could be spread more throughout the development. A person on foot could come right to a shop, perhaps a convenience store, that sits along Dodge Street. 

People on foot and using mobility aids should also be able to travel within the development safely. One simple way to accomplish this is raised pedestrian crossings. Raised crossings do two things: 1) they slow cars by acting as a speed bump and 2) they alert drivers to be courteous and aware of people crossing.

Another pedestrian-friendly design we would recommend is back-in angle parking where appropriate. This type of parking has been shown to be safer for all road users and further serves to slow through traffic. Lockwood said this was not possible but didn’t say why.

Invite the neighbors

This development has a residential neighborhood directly to the north. There are also new apartment complexes being built on the east side of 72nd on the site of the old furniture store as well as to the southwest. It is very likely that people will walk from these locations to the Crossroads development. 

Connecting to people from the bus

72nd & Dodge is served by several bus routes. Omaha Metro routes 8, 18, 98 and most prominently, the ORBT Dodge route all converge at this intersection. All of the amenities described for people arriving on foot will entice people to arrive by bus. 

  • Paint crosswalks adjacent to the development.
  • Improve sidewalks along 72nd and Dodge Streets.
  • Provide seating areas throughout and well marked crossings within surface lots.
ID: snowy sidewalks with footprints in the dirty snow lead to the ORBT stop where a bright orange bus is at the station at 72nd & Dodge St. Photo: Cindy Tefft.

Connecting to people on bicycles

Many people will arrive at this location by bicycle if they are accommodated when they arrive. The Strava bicycle heat map below shows that very few people are biking in this area currently, likely because it is so hostile to people on bikes. We can also see from the heat map that there are many people biking in the surrounding areas, with the largest number of people on the Keystone trail to the West.

  • Create safe streets within the development for people on bikes.
  • Provide safe bike parking throughout the development.
  • Provide bike lockers for long term parking for tenants.
  • Build multiple locations for the Heartland BCycle bike share docks.
  • Build safe connections between the development and the Keystone trail.
ID: a Strava heat map of the area shown in yellows, pinks and greens. Most people avoid the Crossroads area currently because it’s not user friendly or safe.

Transit Oriented Development

The city of Omaha has recently adopted a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plan. The basic idea is to increase density of development near transit lines, particularly the ORBT line along Dodge, and build closer to the street. To accomplish this, the city can reduce restrictions on the zoning, allowing for multi-family units to be built without special variances. The other tool is to reduce the number of required parking spaces (and where they put said parking), owing to the thought that people could live car-free or car-lite with the amenity of nearby transit.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF)

For this project, the developer is asking for a record $80 million (for a single project) in tax increment financing from the city. While we disagree that this development requires such funding, it is clear that the city is going to award this money so we ask that the city make some demands in exchange.

Is TIF Worth It? (OWH) If you haven’t already read this article, do so now for a deeper understanding of TIF and how it works, or doesn’t’!

What the developer can do:

  • Make the development more friendly to people on foot or on bicycle by not requesting waivers to sidewalks along Chicago.
  • Use raised crosswalks throughout the development.
  • Provide back-in angle parking.
  • Re-orient the businesses along Dodge to welcome people riding the bus or arriving by foot.
  • Provide plentiful bicycle parking throughout the development, close to retail and dining.
  • Provide 2 Dero FixIt Stations within the development.
  • Include Heartland BCycle in the planning and build space for their bike docks.

What the city can do:

  • Improve pedestrian safety features such as painting crosswalks and stop lines adjacent to the property.
  • Improve sidewalks around development.
    • On the perimeter and throughout the property include 7 foot setbacks from traffic and include trees, bushes, and native plants. 
  • No further widening of the crossing area, specifically at 74th & Dodge where a double turn lane is proposed.
  • Create safe connections between Keystone trail on both Dodge and Cass Streets.
  • Designate Farnam as a well marked cycle route between 67th Ave. and 74th St. and to the Keystone on the west.

What the city should require:

  • Affordable housing as part of the development.
  • TOD framework for this site.
  • Pedestrian-friendly features
  • 11’ lanes (less than the current 12.5’ since it sounded like the city originally recommended narrower but they met in the middle at 12.5’)

Omaha is facing a housing crisis and the use of TIF is an important tool in building affordable housing. Omaha needs more housing in areas that are also served by good public transportation. We need to re-evaluate how we use TIF and determine if we are using this tool to build a city that will be prosperous going forward, or if we are giving money to developers without any expectations of creating more affordable housing? It’s also taking money away from schools and streets, forcing us to pass the recent $200M street bond and neglect the needs of our school children and teachers.

If the city is willing to give TIF to every project, without restriction, every developer will ask for this funding. We appreciate the work that the developers are doing and their willingness to incorporate some of our suggestions. In conversations, the developers have been thoughtful and considerate of the needs of people who don’t arrive by car but ultimately, their job is to make money. It is the job of the city to ensure each project works to make our city more equitable and sustainable, especially when using public funds.

ID: a partially demolished building with construction fencing that says, “the crossroads omaha, NE” and “Lockwood Development” and “Century Development” in orange letters with a black background. Photo by Cindy Tefft.

The Right to Move & Enjoy Life

19 Jan

{ID: an ORBT bus stop at 84th and Dodge, inaccessible due to a huge snow mound.}

This week the Walkability team with the assistance of the UNMC Munroe-Meyer Institute releases a study of Omaha’s Dodge Street sidewalks. The team assessed over 25 city blocks and their intersections along Dodge Street. We brought together new people to serve in the cause of a safer and more enjoyable Omaha. We are fighting for the right to move and the right to enjoy life in our city. We want the right to move freely and safely to reach our jobs, friends, favorite shops, and schools without a car. Our communities physical and mental wellbeing and need for cleaner air demands we shift our thinking about transportation.The right to an enjoyable urban landscape acknowledges our humanity. We are not merely a collection of workers.  

Do not be dominated by automobiles and the thinking that created this morass of unconnected and poorly constructed sidewalks put together as an afterthought. The city will tell you they spend millions in making the city accessible. How much do you think they spend compared to the money invested in widening roads? The pedestrian, the cyclist, the public transit user all deserve a more enjoyable life. We can’t roll up our windows and turn up our music to escape the cloud of dust. But we could work together and it is possible that you may experience an awakening. If you are still not convinced our financially conservative friends, walkability means economic success. There are Benjamins to be made here. Please download and enjoy our study (below) and look forward to future campaigns to implement strategies to improve sidewalks everywhere in Omaha.