Bicycles and urban sprawl.
The Omaha mayoral candidates were all over the road Tuesday on those two big-city issues, with several questioning the wisdom of Mayor Jim Suttle's decisions to hire a bike czar and to develop bike lanes downtown.
Republicans Dan Welch and Dave Nabity both criticized Suttle for parts of his bike initiatives, including the hiring of a czar from California for $65,000.
“Not wise,” said Welch.
“Out of touch,” said Nabity.
Both men questioned the bike lanes. Welch said he drives Leavenworth Street every day and believes that the lanes are tough on traffic.
“I haven't seen a bike yet, but we're backing up traffic,” Welch said.
Nabity agreed: “It was a lot of energy about something that wasn't really moving the ball down the field.”
Suttle, the only Democrat in the race, stood by his bike-friendly initiatives.
He said that when he became mayor, he decided to adopt an all-inclusive transportation policy that took into consideration all modes of movement, including foot traffic, trolleys, buses and bikes.
Other candidates at the forum included Jean Stothert, a Republican, and Brad Ashford, an independent.
The forum, held before a crowd of 250 at the Omaha Playhouse, was sponsored by Omaha by Design, the Greater Omaha Young Professionals and the Eastern Nebraska Development Council.
The five have entered the final stretch of the primary race. Next Tuesday, voters will narrow the field to two in what is officially a nonpartisan race. The general election is May 14.
The candidates appeared tired Tuesday night and eager for the campaign to end. More than eight forums have been held this month.
This one stuck to design and city planning issues.
One question centered on urban sprawl, with the candidates asked how they would address this issue.
Each came at it from a different perspective.
Stothert, a former Millard school board member, made it clear that she did not think Omaha has an urban sprawl problem.
She said she appreciated efforts to ensure that the city's “urban core” was healthy, but she also respected people who preferred the “big homes and big yards” found in west Omaha.
For his part, Ashford said he comes from an urban perspective. He gave a long list of projects that he has supported, including the renovation of Josyln Castle and development of the Omaha riverfront.
His interest, he said, has always been in historic preservation.
Suttle said he was working to pass legislation that would help the city take control of vacant lots and homes. Currently, more than 6,000 properties are vacant, many of them in the city's eastern corridor.
Both Suttle and Ashford support a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would create a “land bank,” a nonprofit corporation that could acquire vacant property and sell it for development.
Suttle said a land bank would help the entire city.
“Get the western Omaha builders incentivized, so they can do the building in north Omaha,” he said.
Nabity used the urban sprawl question to hammer home his priority: reducing taxes and spending. If taxes continue to rise in Omaha, he said, more and more people will live outside the city limits.
Welch indicated that he believes in the power of annexation, saying it has been used effectively to expand Omaha's tax base.
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