Midlands Voices: Omaha’s streetcar is a vehicle for more than transportation

Written by Scott Dobbe,
Executive Director of Omaha by Design
Published in the Omaha World Herald’s Midland Voices
June 26, 2021

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A city is always in motion. At Omaha by Design, our role is to help guide this momentum towards outcomes that enhance quality of life for residents throughout the metro.

For more than two decades, Omaha by Design has served as the metro’s nonprofit hub for people-centered urban design and policy. Throughout that time, we have earned the community’s trust as a collaborative resource for planning, zoning, transportation, design and development decisions that have shaped our city for the better.

We operate in a future-oriented mindset, with the civic responsibility to be thinking years ahead while tracing these goals back to concrete actions we can take today. Doing so positions us to advocate for the projects and policies that bring people together, create places we all value, and enable our city to thrive.

That’s why Omaha by Design is proud to lend our voice in support of the streetcar and the unique opportunity it presents. Our confident support is centered in the streetcar’s capacity to not only increase mobility, but also to catalyze sustainable, people-centered investment in the heart of the city.

Some have tried to diminish the streetcar’s use case by suggesting other vehicles are equally capable of moving people, often on that narrow view that ridership or speed is the key metric. However, this misses the broader point.

A modern streetcar is a vehicle for much more than transportation. It just as importantly drives opportunity — fostering a vibrant, walkable urban core in which healthy lifestyles thrive, new businesses prosper, and residents from across the city enjoy greater access to jobs, education and civic amenities.

In simplest terms, this is because a modern streetcar will help transform underutilized land and surface parking lots into places for people. In a city with a demonstrated housing shortage, this includes thousands of units of much-needed housing options, from affordable to market-rate.

As part of a Total Mobility System, including enhanced transit options, a shared parking network, and safe and convenient bicycle and pedestrian facilities, the streetcar will boost local businesses and spur new job creation where it is most efficient and accessible to all — within the region’s urban core.

As the need for scattered and underperforming parking decreases, density along the line increases — making room for significantly more residents and jobs to locate along the route — 30,000 more of each, per recent studies. This virtuous cycle brings the ability to generate millions of dollars in local wages, which in turn leads to more economic activity and a growing tax base to better support the local schools, parks, and city services which underpin an expanded quality of life for all.

Cities across the nation have proven this out, and Omaha’s plan has the benefit of building upon lessons learned from the more than 40 streetcar systems in use today. What most sets our local plan apart is the sustainable, fair way it proposes to pay for the streetcar with just a fraction of the adjacent development value it creates. What’s more, it does so while keeping rides fare-free, a compelling alternative as the cost of private vehicle ownership continues to escalate.

Working cooperatively with the City of Omaha’s Urban Core Housing and Mobility Redevelopment Plan, the impact becomes significant: Alongside the 30,000 new residents and 30,000 new jobs, $5 billion in new development is anticipated in the next thirty years. Three billion dollars in the next 15 years.

These projections are not merely hopes. They are grounded in the real, learned experience of our peers in Kansas City, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City, and the dozens of other metros that have seen modern streetcars serve as a catalyst for powerful economic development, enhanced job opportunities, cultural and entertainment options, and tax revenue to the benefit of the broader community.

And we already have a strong head start, with Mutual of Omaha’s investment both downtown and in the redevelopment of their current campus anchoring at least one-fifth, and perhaps even one-third, of that 15-year, $3 billion impact.

This momentum — combined with Metro’s transition to a Regional Transit Authority, the Chamber’s visionary Urban Core Strategic Plan, and the creative, entrepreneurial spirit of everyday Omahans — promises to keep our city’s forward motion.

Omaha by Design supports Omaha’s streetcar because it is both a bold move and a wise, measured investment in the future of our city. A modern streetcar will keep us moving toward the more vibrant, livable, and equitably prosperous city we are on the path to becoming.

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