MAT bus teaser (copy)

A Metro Area Transit bus travels east on Dodge Street near Happy Hollow Boulevard. 

The Omaha area’s future depends in considerable measure on how well it pursues stronger public transportation options. That conclusion is based on input from local employers as well as the findings of transportation analysts who have studied development factors in communities across the country.

Consider the observation from Rebecca Ryan, a consulting economist who has worked with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to develop its new 2040 goals.

“You’re going to get skipped for the big next-generation opportunity,” Ryan told The World-Herald last year, “if you don’t have that mass transportation that is an alternative to owning your own vehicle.”

Analysis by the Nebraska Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency reached the same conclusion in developing a new report on the Omaha area’s transportation needs through 2040. The analysts recommend focusing 40 percent of our area’s long-term transportation spending on public transit needs, The World-Herald’s Jeff Robb has reported.

Omaha business leaders have emphasized the importance of strengthening public transportation, citing several practical reasons:

» To provide employment opportunities for residents in all parts of the city. The labor market is tight, and Omaha has low-income areas with significant unemployment and underemployment. A considerable portion of low-income Omaha residents can’t afford a car, and it’s in our area’s long-term best interest to connect them, through public transportation, with options to employment or educational institutions.

» To remain competitive with regional peers in recruiting and retaining young talent. Communities that direct attention and resources to public transportation, walkable communities and varied transportation options generally have advantages in attracting young workers, who in many cases expect such a focus as part of a forward-looking civic culture.

» To boost the long-term prospects for Omaha’s urban core. When companies consider locating significant facilities in downtown Omaha, the limited space for additional large-scale parking presents a problem. Strengthened public transportation is part of the solution.

The point isn’t that commuting by car is going to evaporate; the Department of Transportation/MAPA study recommends major investments in Omaha-area highway expansion to meet projected demand. But as the report also states, the Omaha area needs to broaden its long-term transportation options.

One positive step is the approaching launch of Omaha’s first bus rapid transit line. ORBT — Omaha Rapid Bus Transit — is set for an April 2020 debut and will run from downtown west to Westroads Mall. The new bus line will use a technology to hold a green light longer and provide a dedicated ORBT lane east of 30th Street.

Public transportation is a issue of regional importance for the Omaha area. Sarpy County is Nebraska’s fastest growing county, for example. Leaders in Bellevue and Papillion have expressed considerable interest in public transit issues, given the need to connect workers with places of employment.

A worthwhile proposal approved in first-round debate last week at the Legislature would create a regional transportation authority for the Omaha area.

At present, Metro transit has contracts with individual cities and counties and submits tax requests to each.

Legislative Bill 492, by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, is intended to promote a more efficient regional transportation process by creating a seven-member elected board with taxing authority up to 10 cents per $100 valuation.

The approach is supported by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the League of Nebraska Municipalities. The Legislature resumes debate Tuesday on the bill.

No municipality or county would be compelled to join under LB 492. In fact, a municipality could join the entity only through approval by two-thirds by its elected governing board.

The Omaha area’s future will be affected in major ways by how it approaches public transit needs. The issue need to be a priority if our area is to remain competitive and maximize the opportunities for communities and workers.

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