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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.

Bicycling the Beltway

23 Sep

By: Curtis Bryant

Railway

The bicycle tour follows the old rail line.

On Saturday, 9/7, I joined a bicycle tour of part of a proposed pedestrian/bicycle trail and passenger rail line that would run between North Omaha and Offutt Air Force Base.

About 50 riders divided into groups led by designers of the proposal. My group leader was architect Geoff DeOld. Beginning at the Charles B. Washington Public Library at 29th St. and Ames Ave., the tour viewed the northernmost portion of the former rail route as far south as Hamilton St. You can see a map on page 2 of this brochure.

MalcolmX

The Malcolm X Memorial is near the old rail line.

Although I knew the area well from having ridden my bicycle along this route to get to work, I had never known that I had been passing a former railroad right of way. Along the way, we passed Metro Transit’s North Omaha Transit Center (under renovation), the Malcom X Memorial, and beautiful Adams Park. Geoff pointed out potential station sites and the wide range of landscapes along the route, including urban intersections such as 40th and Lake Streets, residential areas, forest, and grassy fields.

The intersection of 40th & Lake Sts is a potential site for a transit station.

The intersection of 40th & Lake Sts is a potential site for a transit station.

Emerging Terrain imagines this rail line as part of a proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) system for the Omaha metro. It’s one of several transit options to consider as we work together to create a vision for the future of transportation in Omaha.

Mode>Shift>Omaha works for a future in which all metro-area residents will enjoy the freedom, opportunity, and autonomy that comes from having many transportation options and welcomes efforts to expand these options.

Passenger Rail—Notes from the January Coffee Chat

31 Jan

By Angela Eikenberry

Serviceable and frequent passenger rail between Chicago and Council Bluffs is a real possibility in the near future. This is the one of the main things I took away from our transportation coffee chat with Will Sharp, HDR consultant working with the Iowa Department of Transportation on the Chicago to Council Bluffs-Omaha Regional Passenger Rail System Planning Study. But, if we want this service to make it to Council Bluffs (and eventually Omaha), we need to let Omaha and Council Bluffs-area elected and business leaders know.

According to Mr. Sharp, there has been a lot of public interest in the rail study. Over 1,500 surveys have been completed by the public (online and mail in formats) and there have been thousands of hits on the study’s website. About 90% of respondents have been supportive of passenger rail. The primary groups interested in passenger rail seem to be people not comfortable flying or driving (who really likes to fly any longer?), students, and business travelers who want connectivity to the mega-region of Chicago.

It appears that things are looking good for getting funding into place for the Chicago to Iowa City portion of the proposed service. The main concern expressed by elected officials has been related to ongoing subsidies, estimated at $3 million a year. Cities in this segment of the service have already agreed to cover half of the ongoing costs because they see the economic development and other benefits of having this service. In addition, a Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Chicago-Iowa City  High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program found the Chicago to Iowa City benefit to cost ratio was estimated to be 1.70. That is, at a 7% discount rate, a $386.2 million investment (capital and O&M) results in fully $656.7 million of benefits.

While the Des Moines Downtown Community Alliance has been active in advocating for the passenger rail segment between Iowa City and Des Moines, there has not been an equivalent advocacy group active in Council Bluffs/Omaha. Our best bet for a service terminus right now is Council Bluffs because while there is interest in Omaha and Lincoln as a terminus there has been little to no interest from the State of Nebraska. Also, the cost of getting passenger rail into Omaha would also be very costly, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure costs.

So, if you’re interested in getting viable passenger rail service close to Omaha, you need to let Omaha and Council Bluffs elected and business leaders know that you want it. Contact Mayors Suttle and Hanafan, and the Omaha or Council Bluffs Chambers of Commerce as well as members of the Iowa Legislature to express your support.

All aboard for iowa

You can also follow All Aboard for Iowa on Facebook. They are organizing an event in Council Bluffs for January 31, starting at 1:00pm at the Bayliss Park Hall at 530 1st Avenue. There will be a presentation featuring speakers Patricia Quinn, Executive Director of Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and Geoff Fruin, Iowa City Assistant Manager and formally with the City of Normal, who will talk about the economic benefits of passenger rail. More information is available at: http://allaboardforiowa.com.

Our next coffee chat will be February 22, 2013 at 8:00 AM at 13th Street Coffee & Tea.