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Transportation Transformation ‘Strong Transit Plus Development Equals Community Success’ 5/11/15  05/10/15 11:31:22 PM Printer Friendly VersionPrinter Friendly Version

State-of-the-art BRT vehicles are expected to transport 2,700 riders per day from Westroads to 10th Street along Dodge.
- Images from modeshiftomaha.org and absolutedsm.com
Transportation Transformation
‘Strong Transit Plus Development
Equals Community Success’

By Julien R. Fielding
The Daily Record

    “Omaha must be a community committed to promoting and maintaining a high quality of life for its people, and we need (public transportation) desperately or we will lose our talent,” said Derek Miller, AICP, transportation planner, City of Omaha.
“If we don’t change, we can’t be competitive. We have to change the minds in Omaha. I would like to see growth throughout all areas of the city, and public transit is the key in this.”
    The City has already developed a Master Plan, and conducted the Central Omaha Transit Alternatives Analysis (AA); a planning study that follows Federal Transit Administration guidelines to identify transit options that will provide a convenient, accessible and affordable transit system, which includes streetcars and bus rapid transit.
The AA is the first step in the FTA project development process, which includes planning, environmental, and engineering. And for the AA, they looked at the Crossroads, UNO, UNMC, midtown and downtown corridor.
“We had four meetings and generated a lot of support from the community,” Miller said. “Other communities with successful transit systems, including Portland and even Kansas City, were examined, and multipliers were applied. From an economic standpoint, public transportation makes sense. Not only does it create jobs, but it also generates millions of dollars for the city.”
Miller and five other individuals, ranging from city officials to developers, explained some of the findings to those attending the Transportation Transformation morning breakout session on April 10 at the CRE Summit at the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
It is predicted that by 2050, the population of the Omaha metropolitan area could grow to 1.5 million, but that doesn’t necessarily mean expanding the city’s borders. “Three times as many people prefer infill over growth in outlying communities,” said Jeff Spiehs, Community Engagement Coordinator for Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA). “Strong transit plus development equals community success.”
Public transportation is being developed in phases. The first is by adding bus routes from the downtown area to the Westroads, with “circulators in that area.” The second phase will be on a north/south axis. The third would take commuters to Elkhorn and Shadow Lake. The last would include Fremont and Offutt Air Force Base.
A federally funded Tiger Grant of $15 million will help Metro Area Transit construct an 8-mile bus Bus Rapid Transit system in Central Omaha, including 14 station pairs that will be served by eight state-of-the-art BRT vehicles. The cost will be about $33 million with an operating cost of about $3 million per year. The route from the Westroads to 10th Street, along Dodge, will run every 10 minutes, seven days a week. It is estimated that it will transport more than 2,700 riders per day.
“Sixteen percent of the households along this route, don’t have access to a car,” said Lauren Cencic, project development manager for Metro. The buses will be technologically enhanced, which means WiFi will be available.
Construction for the project should begin in 2017, and “it should be up and running in 2018,” Cencic said.
Buses aren’t the only means of public transportation being considered. Streetcars, too, will be included in the mix, and Omaha is looking to other cities, such as Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland for inspiration.
“Many cities have them in development, even Detroit,” Miller said. “In Kansas City, 70 percent of their tracks are in the ground. They have two BRT lines. They are way ahead of us. Omaha is a ‘show me’ place; people want to see it working elsewhere.”
Ken Smith, city parking manager for the City of Omaha, said that increased public transportation could change the landscape downtown, which has become, in many ways, an inefficient parking lot. “Forty-five percent of parking goes unused, 20,000 spaces remain open daily, and parking garages are not cheap,” he said. “We need to make our garages more efficient, by having a shared parking model. It would let people use open spaces that aren’t being used. We need to move away from numbered garages to names based on location. And we need to change the culture.”
Making parking more efficient means that we would need less land for parking, which would allow for more development. “We are losing employers downtown,” Miller added, “and it is over parking.”
As beneficial as public transportation is, there exists a “perception problem.” Many people think it is a means of transportation for only those on a low income. And because of this misperception, branding is important, Cencic said. “These [buses] are high-end vehicles that you can walk onto like a subway or train. This isn’t your typical bus. Stations are high-end too, with ticket vending machines, real-time signs and high-end public art.”
The developers present at the break-out session were enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by increased public transportation, primarily because by looking at the data from other cities “there is a science to this … it has been proven,” said Michael Moylan, CCIM, president, Shamrock Development Inc. “Parking is very expensive to build, and there is a problem getting leasing when parking is an issue.”
Furthermore, that additional cost of providing parking is hindering development. Jerry Reimer, co-owner of Urban Village Development, said that if it weren’t an issue, a project at 30th and St. Mary’s would have already been built.
“For five months, all we have done is to look at parking. I wouldn’t build a unit without parking.” And yet, he said, if “we start to look at the whole pie, parking downgrades our amenities. If I go out of town and I find a trolley, I will stay at a higher end hotel because I don’t have to pay for a car.”

For 26 years, the Commercial Real Estate (CRE) Summit has been the area’s highly anticipated annual conference event for commercial real estate industry professionals, where industry experts and keynote speakers provide attendees with up-to-date information and networking opportunities. This year’s theme was Change Agents.    Conference planners recently announced that those who missed the Transportation Transformation session, as well as some other sessions, can go to: attendcresummit.com/pro-gram and download a video of the presentation.

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