Omaha is a growing regional city with complex transportation challenges. The city has enormous street maintenance needs. It must fund street construction/restructuring to accommodate a growing population. And the city must broaden the transportation options to meet public expectations, reduce traffic congestion and help connect low-income residents to their workplaces.
The Omaha metropolitan area is poised to make strides, thanks to several current efforts. First, through city government’s increased focus on street maintenance. Second, through practical strategic planning to analyze transportation needs that also connect to economic development.
The city’s need for far greater investment in street repair and maintenance has been glaring, not least in the wake of last winter with the embarrassing proliferation of cratered streets. The problem is far larger than potholes. As Omaha officials acknowledge, the city is decades behind in meeting its street maintenance needs. Mayor Jean Stothert is right that heightened focus on maintenance work must be a priority. The next city budget includes increased street-related funding, but more importantly, next year may bring a city bond vote for up to $200 million for street work. A bond vote would deepen public understanding of the scale of work and investment needed to address the maintenance shortfall.
Meanwhile, efforts through the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce are promoting important collaborations. First, the ConnectGO initiative is bringing together a wide range of players to develop coordinated transportation decisions across the Omaha metropolitan area. Participants include corporate leaders, community volunteers, public and private organizations, and infrastructure and transportation experts.
That initiative will complement the Nebraska Legislature’s action this year to create an elected, seven-member transportation board in the Omaha area, pending approval from the current Metro Transit board, with taxing authority up to 10 cents per $100 valuation. A municipality could join the entity only through approval by two-thirds of its elected board. This regional approach makes great sense, given the growth in Sarpy County and the close economic ties between Omaha-area counties.
The chamber’s Urban Core Committee is studying options to boost the vitality of Omaha’s urban center in regard to transportation, economic development, housing and jobs. The idea of a streetcar is part of the study, not only as a transportation amenity but also as an economic development tool that could allow reuse of surface parking lots for residential, retail or office space use.
Much work and collaboration lie ahead, but the goals are worthy. These initiatives have tremendous potential to shape the Omaha area’s future in far-ranging, positive ways.