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Light Rail and Omaha

It Takes a Proactive Community to Build Light Rail: the Case for Omaha

by Eric C. Miller and Gerald Kopiasz

Omaha, renowned for its important history and continuing dominance in railroading, once had one of the largest streetcar networks in the US; the last streetcar rolled in March 1955. Forty-one years later, Omaha Mayor Hal Daub began to campaign for a trolley line to serve downtown, and after working with local neighborhoods, the line chosen was along 10th Street, running from the Civic Auditorium to Rosenblatt Stadium and the Henry Doorly Zoo. A feasibility study conducted in cooperation with the City of Omaha Planning Department and HDR Engineering looked at the engineering, economic, and social aspects of the plan, and confirmed 10th Street to be the preferred corridor because of shared parking at the stadium/zoo complex, access to the Durham Western Heritage Museum, and the state of the corridor traffic operations and traffic control on 10th Street.

Modern transit needs to convey people to business and other destinations; it must meet the needs of the average commuter as well as getting visitors where they need to go in a convenient and reliable manner. This is especially important now with the new Omaha Convention Center and Arena in place. A modern and permanent transit route can spur increased community development for older neighborhoods as well as the redevelopment of blighted and substandard areas, including many historic neighborhoods that have deteriorated. Reliable fixed transit is economically necessary for the building of a modern inner city. It helps to lure more residential, business, and retail development, while at the same time shaping growth for a successfully expanding metropolis. Rail transit needs to be integrated with bus services to provide a reliable, efficient, and cost effective choice for Omahans.

It is essential that Omaha start small by implementing a short trolley or streetcar line first. Fully carrying out the 10th Street alignment is currently the best option, but another strong corridor, encompassing neighborhoods, services, and key points of interest, is a line west from downtown to the 72nd and Pacific Ak-Sar-Ben area; this could serve the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the medical center, and new developments at Ak-Sar-Ben. But the most promising corridor for light rail is a line from downtown Omaha south to Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base. In addition to being included in the 1997 Omaha Master Plan, this route is also highly favorable to diverse private and public funding sources, and the alignment, parallel to Union Pacific freight tracks, can be very cost effective.

Next in importance is a route west from downtown, the most feasible paralleling the Union Pacific mainline to West Omaha. From downtown, light rail lines straight north to the Florence area, northeast to the Airport, or east to Council Bluffs can interlace.

Finally, commuter rail southwest to Lincoln on the BNSF mainline and northwest to Fremont on the UP mainline are also important for serving the Omaha metropolitan area commuter's needs. But in order for commuter rail and intercity rail to succeed, reliable connecting transportation and seamless transfers need to be provided at the endpoints.

More than ever, modern cities are making transportation connections easier with intermodal terminals. Omaha needs to have a multimodal transportation facility providing seamless transfers among local bus and rail transit, intercity bus and rail, regional commuter rail, and taxis. An excellent location for such a station is at or near the Burlington Station on the southeastern edge of downtown--right in the historic rail district. Without these multimodal connections, such a system has a high chance to fail. This is why rail advocates are supportive of bus service, since it is a necessary component of the entire mass transit scheme.

Ultimately, the challenges that face implementation of rail transit in Omaha lie within the current political structure. Today's mayoral administrationand the existing transit authority management and metropolitan planning organization are basically resistant, even hostile, to modern transportation concepts. A government and community that are progressive in nature is what we need, as well as an attitude that the status quo is no longer sufficient for the future of the community. We need a Department of Transportation to create balance, rather than the current Department of Roads, which is supposed to serve as our DOT.

There are plenty of examples of rail transit systems nearby that we can used as models for Omaha, including Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Portland.

Denver's system began in 1994, and the city is still constructing lines that feeds its vibrant downtown and connect to the developing intermodal terminal. Dallas opened their its rail system in 1996, and it is responsible for a recent highly successful trend in transit-oriented development. Salt Lake City is one of the most cost effective systems in Anglo America; this city closely resembles Omaha but maintains higher annual ridership on light rail alone than Omaha does on its entire transit system, and bus and rail ridership are constantly on the rise. Portland, in addition to light rail, uses unique modern Czech streetcars that provide efficient circulator transit in the downtown area; this is an effective development and mobility tool that provides serious low density transit. All four systems mentioned above are also in process of expanding and have been recognized nationally for their accomplishments.

Looking long term, the formation of a unitary transit district with an elected board of directors in the state of Nebraska, which would encompass the Omaha metro area, Lincoln, and points between, will yield better economic returns and make metropolitan transport in Nebraska safer and easier. Current government deficits put the near-term status of many transit projects at risk. This year will witness the reauthorization of TEA-21, which has become a major catalyst for rail transit projects. We currently don't know how transit funding will be affected. Nonetheless, transit is realizing a boom, especially with the high increase in ridership resulting from innovations in the traditional technology of rail transit. In Omaha, as has occurred in other areas comparable in demographics, rail transit must be implemented in the short term. This is viable even in the current economic situation, as we have seen in other communities, since the returns in economic, social, and growth development are much greater than the original cost.

Eric C. Miller and Gerald Kopiasz