Repurposed Omaha rail line would include light rail system, trail

A digital image of what the 40th and Lake Streets area could look like in 10 to 15 years under the Omaha Belt Line proposal.

Today it is an abandoned railroad line, a mostly unused swath of weedy land that cuts from north Omaha through South Omaha and into Bellevue.

Fast forward to what could happen under a proposal led by Emerging Terrain planners and designers:

If replaced by a light rail system coupled with a parallel recreational trail, the repurposed Omaha Belt Line could spark industrial and other development that could bring an estimated 9,000 jobs and 4,500 new homes in just one 3.5-mile stretch of the 20-mile corridor.

The light rail line would connect northern and southern areas and could help increase access to western and eastern destinations. That's because the rail line would be dotted with hubs that could become connecting points for passengers hopping an enhanced bus service traveling east and west.

Carrying out the “dream vision” over about 10 to 15 years would require support from several governments, private landowners, as well as tens of millions of public and private dollars, said Emerging Terrain founder Anne Trumble.

It's so expansive, she said, “it's a little scary.”

“We're putting it all out there,” she said, standing in a workshop filled with before-and-after graphics assembled by a team of designers after hosting a series of community input sessions. “This is a way of engaging people in a discussion.”

Three elected officials who attended a briefing on the vision agreed on its enormousness but said the potential gain will have them pursuing parts with their respective governments.

“Now that it is laid out, it can be done in increments that are manageable,” Bellevue City Council President Don Preister said. “Money is always the big catch, but I think the biggest hurdle is what already is accomplished.”

Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt said recasting the derelict land would be akin to clearing a clogged artery.

“This would be the nitro pill for connecting north and south,” he said.

A 3.5-mile stretch from 40th and Lake Streets to about 41st Street and Woolworth Avenue would be the best place to start developing the larger 20-mile corridor of light rail and trail, the Emerging Terrain team says. The rendering above shows how that strip could be transformed. Take a closer look.

No price tag was placed on the overall project because the focus for now, said Trumble, was to think big and examine the corridor's full potential. A comprehensive economic analysis of costs and benefits would be next.

To get a sense of cost, though, the work was broken up into phases, and the team noted that it could cost more than $20 million just to acquire the Douglas County property needed to establish the right of way. That cost is based on valuations and might not necessarily be fair market values.

That amount also does not include the larger expense of equipment and infrastructure.

To start, Trumble said, the design team suggests focusing on a more digestible chunk — about 3.5 miles from 40th and Lake Streets to the Veterans Administration Medical Center campus near 41st Street and Woolworth Avenue.

A light rail system would run parallel to a recreational trail to be used for walking and biking. In addition to spurring commercial activity, the rail system would improve mobility for low-income residents.

Residents of north Omaha, for example, could catch the light rail to job centers that include the University of Nebraska Medical Center and VA campus. As it stands now, Trumble said, many of the residents can't easily get to jobs or educational facilities.

If the enhanced public bus system is plugged into the equation, a resident could go to a hub along the rail line that serves as a connecting point for rapid transit bus service — and catch a ride to a west Omaha appointment or job site.

“The revival of the Belt Line as a multiuse corridor has the potential to connect people with jobs and begin to break down the separations and isolation that currently affects parts of the city,” the Emerging Terrain team said in a report. “Unbuilt and vacant parcels along the Belt Line provide land for new development, bringing employment and investment opportunities.”

Research was based on census demographic statistics, county assessor records and GIS data. It was by examining vacant parcels around the corridor that the team came up with the “loose estimate” that up to 9,000 jobs and 4,500 new housing units could be developed from 40th and Lake Streets to the VA center, Trumble said.

About 500 people provided input into the “Realigning a Region” project, Trumble said, mostly by attending public forums and exhibits held over the past several weeks at the nonprofit Emerging Terrain headquarters at 17th and Vinton Streets.

Participants learned the history of the corridor, which was built in 1885 to connect key industries of the city to main rail lines. Outpaced by the growth in long-distance trucking, the Belt Line was abandoned in the 1980s, leaving the swath of mostly underused space. The closure of related industries contributed to a “real crisis” in many inner-city neighborhoods, Trumble said.

Fortunately, she said, prominent institutions of health care, education and service-related jobs have popped up and expanded along the corridor. They could become more accessible under the light rail and trail plan.

Currently, about two miles of the rail line remains an active freight rail in South Omaha, said Trumble. She said an alternate route for the light rail in that area would be necessary, but is doable. “There's a lot of work to be done in that part.”

Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen said he was impressed with the regional breadth, and he said the cross section of jurisdictions might help in assembling financing.

“I was also impressed with their vision to bring new forms of transit that tie neighborhood and commercial centers together,” he said, adding that he would ask the council's planning committee to look at the proposal.

Gernandt said the idea got his attention. He said he envisions a couple starting off on a walk in Sarpy County, stopping for burgers at Stella's, continuing the walk or light rail ride to Dinker's bar and grill in South Omaha, and ending up in the Dundee area for cocktails.

“Whether all the components can come together and stay together through all of the phases of this project is yet to be seen,” Gernandt said. “But I think this should be seriously considered and seriously marketed.”

Philanthropic sources would be key, he said. The proposal also considers a public bond issue, federal and state funding and venture capital.

Preister likes that the rail line connects older established areas that he said sometimes are neglected. He likes the thought of a walking trail alive with activity, and placards that would explain the area's history.

“It's very ambitious and very grand,” he said. “But if you don't have the vision, nothing will happen.”

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