With a new study estimating the cost of an Omaha streetcar at $170 million, Mayor Jean Stothert says it’s up to streetcar advocates to push the project ahead. She says she would require a public vote if tax dollars are involved.
The taxpayers, she said, will decide if the project moves forward. Stothert said she sees possible benefits, including a transportation option that boosts economic development and decreases traffic congestion. But she said she won’t consider a vote until streetcar advocates secure funding.
Still, she said, “If the City of Omaha had any dollars in the project, it would have to be (put to) a citywide vote.”
The new cost projection, released Friday, is $14 million more than the previous estimate, which was based on costs from 2014 and was not as detailed as the latest analysis. The new “advanced conceptual engineering” study considered the cost of moving such utilities as power, sewer and water lines; building basic streetcar stops; traffic adjustments and other factors.
The cost estimate includes engineering, construction, stops, utilities for the electrical streetcars and the streetcar vehicles themselves, among other expenses.
The report on the streetcar study, obtained by The World-Herald on Friday, doesn’t determine whether Omaha will move forward. It does give more firm information to help people decide, said Curt Simon, Metro Transit executive director.
“This is showing us it’s feasible,” Simon said in an interview. “It’s showing us some potential revenue sources if everybody wants to go forward. ... My takeaway is that it’s going to take a team effort to get this done, if it’s something that the city wants to do.”
Metro, which contracted with HDR Inc. for the $610,000 study with mostly federal grant money, provided the report to Stothert on Friday.
The study follows up on a financial assessment done in 2016. That report recommended a smorgasbord of possible funding sources. Those included philanthropic donations and possibly federal grants but leaned heavily toward “value capture,” or getting money from the area that would benefit the most from a streetcar.
Friday’s report recommends that such funding sources be pinned down in what it calls a next step, creating a “funding and finance plan.” The next steps after that would be preliminary engineering and final design and construction, the consultants recommended.
That’s if the city and public approve. That could be a big if, as some Omahans view a streetcar as a frill that would cost a lot to serve a few.
The report doesn’t go into this part, but there would have to be public approval at some point, possibly via a City Council vote, the approval of special assessments and other funding from within a streetcar district, or the citywide vote Stothert has called for.
It’s unclear whether Omaha will take the next step. City government, and the mayor in particular, are likely to have a lot to say about that. Most of the potential funding sources are outside Metro Transit’s control. Stothert said Friday that the project’s supporters — Modern Streetcar Advocates — would take the lead on figuring out how to pay for it.
“The city would be a partner and a resource in the work ahead,” she said. But “the work ahead on the streetcar will be driven largely by the project stakeholders — not the city.”
Modern Streetcar Advocates said Friday that stakeholders in midtown and downtown “are exploring different funding scenarios for the streetcar that would not require a citywide tax increase.” The group plans on sharing its ideas this summer, it said in a prepared statement.
“We are confident a vast majority of the funding for the streetcar can be paid for from within the corridor by those who benefit the most: businesses and commercial property owners along the route, developers, and area institutions,” said Mike Moylan of Shamrock Development, who is a leader of Modern Streetcar Advocates. “There is no need for a citywide tax increase to complete the project.”
The report based its cost estimate on a route that goes from 10th and Cass Streets in downtown Omaha to 42nd Street in midtown. It would travel on 10th Street, Farnam and Harney Streets. That’s the main route that has been contemplated since Omaha’s most recent streetcar exploration began in earnest in 2014. The route would travel 3 miles and have 13 stations.
New in this report is a recommendation for a streetcar vehicle maintenance facility at Eighth Street and Riverfront Drive downtown.
The report suggests that the streetcar would be governed by a new authority that could include such partners as the City of Omaha, Metro Transit, the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, a new business improvement district and the Omaha Municipal Land Bank.
It recommends creating a separate nonprofit foundation to accept private donations.
It says a streetcar could begin operating in Omaha by 2021. It uses the 2016 financial assessment’s estimate of $7.4 million a year for operating costs.
The report estimates that 820 to 1,060 people a day would ride the streetcar. It says that number would be “substantially lower than peer streetcar systems” using a measurement that considers trips expected between home and work using Census data. The measurements did not count people who would hop on the streetcar to go to lunch, or use it between events at CenturyLink Center or TD Ameritrade Park and bars or their cars, or students who would ride it to class. It didn’t consider whether the streetcar could replace a University of Nebraska Medical Center shuttle between UNMC and midtown.
City planning consultant Steve Jensen noted that the Kansas City, Missouri, streetcar was initially projected to have 2,700 riders a day. The KC Streetcar averaged more than double that last year: 5,645 riders a day.
“I don’t think 820 to 1,060 is a good number,” Jensen said. “I think that’s just plain wrong.”
Jensen said the biggest takeaway is “the costs are probably in line with what’s been expected.”
The consultants looked under the streets and did not find “fatal flaws” such as utilities or traffic problems that would cause costs to shoot way up, Jensen said, although he said the new estimate is still an estimate.
“We were all wondering, is it going to be $157 million, or $150 million, or $250 million?” Jensen said. If the report came up with a $250 million estimate, he said, then it probably wouldn’t be worth spending more time and money to explore the idea further.