From left, Keith Station of Heartland Workforce Solutions, Abbie Kretz of Heartland Workers Center, Karen Gibler of Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce, Jaymes Sime of Micah House and moderator Katharine Eagan Kelleman participate in a panel discussion on transportation pressure points at the Heartland 2050 Summit at the downtown Hilton Omaha May 8, 2019. (Photo by Scott Stewart)
Summit Looks at Omaha Public Transit System
By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record
For many Omaha residents, transportation means pulling a car out of a driveway and spending about 15 minutes swerving between potholes to reach a destination – maybe 30 minutes when facing construction or congestion.
The metropolitan area’s transit system is more complex than that, though. Walking, biking, public buses, ride sharing apps and, as of this week, electric scooters play a role in moving people around the city, and that motion is critical to the area’s economic vitality.
Vibrant, creative places don’t provide as much value if they are isolated from the community.
“Transportation is a component of human rights,” said Katharine Eagan Kelleman, a public transportation advocate and CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. “If you can’t get to everything in your community, what’s the point?”
Transportation can be a barrier for some people to holding a job, or trading up for a better one. For companies, it can limit access to workforce and longer commutes can drive away talented workers.
The ways transportation can influence broader issues was on full display last Wednesday at the Heartland 2050 Summit at the downtown Hilton Omaha hotel.
Heartland 2050 is a MAPA initiative to bring stakeholders together to work toward a common vision for the future of the Omaha- Council Bluffs metropolitan area. Its “Close the Gap” project seeks to align the area’s efforts on transportation and land use to address access to education and employment, attract and retain more local talent, reduce racial and ethnic disparities, bring together neighborhoods and corridors that are difficult to reach without a vehicle and promote options for multi-modal transportation, which includes walking, biking and public transportation.
“If we could get people to where we want them to be to live, work and play, we would be a much more successful region,” said Karna Loewenstein, Heartland 2050 project coordinator.
Last week’s summit, “Connecting People to Life: Transit in a New Light,” featured a keynote address by Kelleman and included demos of the new scooters approved by the City of Omaha for use in certain areas, and they learned about investments made by Metro Transit, including its forthcoming rapid bus transit on Dodge Street. They also explored the importance of transportation in relation to food deserts, sustainability, employment issues and homelessness.
Kelleman asked a panel representing local organizations that interact with public transit users to describe what a perfect system would look like if they could wave a magic wand and make substantial change happen.
Abbie Kretz, a community organizer at Heartland Workers Center, said the goal should be to find a solution that’s possible and then make those changes reality.
“It’s great to have these talks, but how can we move it forward in an approachable way?” Kretz asked. “That’s my magic wand – so that it’s actually is doable.”
Keith Station, director of business relations at Heartland Workforce Solutions, said a great system would be something that would be used throughout the area’s varied weather patterns – in extreme temperatures, snow, rain and other inclement conditions.
The area’s transit system could use more connections to Council Bluffs and the communities of Sarpy County, allowing access to jobs and other resources located in Omaha and elsewhere in the area. Karen Gibler, president of the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce, said jobs are available but they are difficult to access for workers without reliable vehicles.
“We’re a very auto-centric community,” Gibler said. “We really need to change that mindset.”
The panel suggested that if Council Bluffs can successfully partner with Google to bring wireless internet accessibility across the city, then significant improvements to the area’s transit system should be possible, too.
“That’s what transportation needs,” said Jaymes Sime, executive director of the Micah House shelter in Council Bluffs.
Sime added that he believes the community needs to look 15 years into the future and ask what a high quality transit system will look like – not simply what such a system looks like in 2019.
“What do we need to be doing? What’s that technology look like? Hopefully, it’s beyond scooters, holy smokes,” Sime said. “Sometimes when you get into a sufficiency mindset, you only bring yourself up to today. We also need to have that future conversation, because we can’t trade one for another.”
Find video from the summit at facebook.com/heartland2050. For more information on Heartland 2050, visit heartland2050.org.