The word “streetcar” has barely escaped my mouth, and Mike Hoch is already turning crimson.
“The biggest waste of money!” he barks, his voice slicing through the din of a lively Wednesday dinnertime crowd at Dinker’s Bar and Grill. “Just ridiculous!” the retiree yelps a few seconds later as his three dining companions, his wife, Vici, and friends Dana and Mike Shaw, nod in agreement.
And then, after the quartet offers reasons why it thinks an Omaha streetcar is a crummy idea — the condition of city roads, the fact it will benefit only midtown and downtown — Hoch drops his argumentative trump card, the one played again and again when I talked to Dinker’s customers Wednesday.
Hoch says the construction of an Omaha streetcar will raise his taxes. He says he knows this even after I tell him that preliminary streetcar plans avoid widespread tax increases — and that Mayor Jean Stothert has said she won’t support a plan that hikes property taxes.
Hoch’s words come out in deliberate chunks now, as if he’s taking verbal chomps from a Dinker’s cheeseburger.
“I just … do not … believe them.”
This is the oldest Omaha story in the book.
For two decades, we have talked streetcar. For two decades, the idea has animated politicians, business leaders, developers and young Omahans who see it as a way to commit to the city’s future.
And for two decades, the idea has infuriated large swaths of residents who question the plan’s price tag and its value.
So, yes, I found a fair bit of fury when I spent the lunch and dinner hours interviewing 25 people at Dinker’s. I talked to them two days before a new streetcar report pegged the potential cost at $170 million, set a preliminary route between 42nd and Farnam and 10th and Cass (with 15 stops along the route) and was portrayed by city officials as showing that the project is feasible.
The backers of the Omaha streetcar will not be wild about the results of my informal and highly unscientific poll: Three for the streetcar, 16 against and six people undecided.
But they may find solace in what I also found at Dinker’s: a pair of cracks in that anger, twin openings by which this latest streetcar plan could actually go from drawing board to reality. Two opportunities to rewrite the long, sad Omaha streetcar story.
One is the current occupant of the mayor’s office. The other is our big brother city to the south.
Mayor Stothert’s support of any eventual streetcar proposal would mean quite a bit to several of the Republicans I spoke to at Dinker’s, the nearly half-century-old southeast Omaha hangout with burgers the regulars and yours truly swear by.
Dinker’s attracts a diverse crowd. I talked to business types in suits, construction workers who had just finished their shifts, retirees and college kids.
I talked to several Republicans who, while undecided, seemed to be giving the idea of a streetcar another chance. They voted twice for Stothert. They think she’s a good mayor. And if she says it’s a good idea, well, they just might listen.
“I trust her,” said Mike Linn, the president of a manufacturing company near Dinker’s and a lunchtime diner I marked undecided. “So I will probably trust her judgment on this.”
The other thing that seemed to turn Dinker’s customers in favor of a streetcar plan, or at least give potential opponents pause: Kansas City.
Ah, good ol’ K.C., that nearby city with an international airport (which Omaha didn’t bid for) , a Major League Baseball team (we’re their Triple-A affiliate) and its own world-famous style of barbecue (hey, we have steak!).
Not that we’re jealous. (We are totally jealous.)
A funny thing kept happening when I wandered between Dinker’s tables. People who had recently visited Kansas City kept bringing up that city’s 2-year-old streetcar. They had seen it. They had ridden it. They had enjoyed it.
They wondered: “Are we gonna do it like K.C.?” asked Mikaela Kellogg, one of three people I found supportive of the plan. Mikaela, 20, is a cosmetology student. She dined with Creighton business student Pacis Bana, 23.
They had boarded the Kansas City streetcar which, by the way, is averaging double the number of expected riders since its first run in May 2016. It looks like an early success. It looks to Kellogg and Bana like a thing Omaha should get behind.
And indeed: Of the six people I ran into who had seen or ridden on the Kansas City streetcar, all six were either in favor of an Omaha streetcar or undecided.
“It would be very nice,” Kellogg said of the streetcar line that is sketched to run from near the Med Center, through the Blackstone District and Midtown Crossing and then into downtown.
“I would take it from my house,” Bana says. “Very big city,” Kellogg says.
But before Omaha’s streetcar proponents can get to that big-city future, there’s some serious reckoning that needs to happen in the present.
The truth, at least in this one east Omaha burger joint, is that the current streetcar outreach has not reached them. Much of the opposition, like Hoch’s, is entrenched and has been for years.
Now, people are not uniformly angry. But they are nearly all suspicious.
Why do we need an estimated $170 million streetcar? How will it help us? Who, exactly, is going to pay for it?
They feel like they have seen this before in Omaha, even though some freely admit that they now like previous massive projects like the downtown arena and ballpark even as they bemoan the bond issues and taxes that help pay for city government.
They remain … dubious. Dubious seems the right word for it.
“This is money that could be used for so many other things,” says Gary Magnussen, who lives in South Omaha.
“This will only benefit downtown dwellers,” says Dana Shaw, who then guesses, correctly, that I’m a resident of downtown. (She says my gray blazer gave me away.)
“There’s plenty of parking in the Old Market and midtown — why do we need a streetcar?” asks Pat Linn of Gretna.
At Dinker’s, they are serving skepticism as a side dish. At Dinker’s, they are not at all convinced. At least not yet.