The Nebraska Department of Economic Development has opened a new South Omaha office on the Metropolitan Community College campus. (Courtesy of Department of Economic Development).

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — The controversial Omaha streetcar project could get a $100 million jolt from the State of Nebraska under a plan before the Legislature — that is, if the route were extended into North Omaha and to the airport.

A measure presented Friday by state Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee asks for the state funds to establish and operate a streetcar that would connect to Eppley Airfield.

Who gets included, and who doesn’t

In effect, Wayne said, his Legislative Bill 477 is a way to put pressure on the City of Omaha to take the $300 million-plus streetcar project through less advantaged areas and to the airport, and also to “set some standards on who gets included and who doesn’t.”

“Let me be clear, in the beginning I was opposed to the streetcar,” Wayne said. “This is a compromise for me, personally, to figure out how we can take the current proposed streetcar and make it better and actually work on public transit in the process.”

Currently the main streetcar corridor approved by the Omaha City Council and Mayor Jean Stothert takes the planned modern-day streetcar from downtown to midtown along Farnam and Harney Streets. There are a few stretches in the north-south direction as well, along Eighth and 10th Streets downtown.

Details of a new northern extension have yet to be hammered out, but two City of Omaha officials spoke in support of the bill and its concept.

State Sen. Christy Armendariz said she had lived along the proposed extended route. (Courtesy of the Armendariz campaign)

“An extension will help encourage development over a larger area and connect more people to the jobs in the core and the new North Omaha job centers,” said Steve Jensen, deputy chief of staff for economic development to the mayor.

Also speaking in favor was another Omaha economic development aide, Jacqueline Morrison.

Second act

Wayne described his proposal as “Part II” of the Economic Recovery Act the Legislature passed last year as Legislative Bill 1024. That package, called a historic investment into the poorest areas of the state, earmarked $335 million mostly for North and South Omaha.

A large chunk, $60 million, is for a future business park near Eppley Airfield.

Wayne said his broader idea is for the streetcar route to extend north from Farnam and 19th Streets — and into the future business park he expects will develop near 16th and Locust Streets. He envisions the route continuing toward the airport.

Jensen and Morrison agreed, to a degree.

“Along with federal funding it (LB 477) would allow the system to extend through the heart of North Omaha and on to the developments created through last year’s LB 1024,” said Jensen.

He and Morrison said in an interview after the hearing that it is still uncertain how far north the route could extend even with state and federal funding and tax-increment financing.

Affordable housing

They said the line certainly could stretch into the “heart of North Omaha,” reaching 16th and Locust Streets. Coordination and discussion would have to include Metro transit, as well, so as not to disrupt its plans for public transportation in the area.

Let me be clear, in the beginning I was opposed to the streetcar.

– State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha

Wayne said another key goal is to see the streetcar project help solve the city’s affordable housing needs.

He said a companion bill proposed by State Sen. Terrell McKinney also will seek to further that goal.

The Appropriations Committee took no action on whether to move LB 477 to full legislative debate.

Several asked questions, including State Sen. Christy Armendariz of Omaha, who said she had lived in the area of the proposed extension.

Selling point for naysayers?

A concern, said Armendariz, is the possibility that the route would not get all the way to the airport.

Steve Erdman
State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

“I’m excited to see how this plays out,” she said.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln said she could see the benefits of a streetcar that would transport people between the airport and downtown, especially during events such as the College World Series.

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard asked whether the streetcar project would be self-sustaining. City officials said an independent consultant has reported that anticipated TIF revenue streams to be used to pay off bonds would be more than enough for the first downtown-midtown phase.

Jensen said the research showed that the “base system” of the streetcar project could help pay for extensions to North and South Omaha, the airport, zoo and Aksarben Village. However, he said, those would require federal dollars and other funding as well.

Wayne said he has spoken to at least one business group along the proposed extended route and the concept was received positively.

He suspects many naysayers would change their opinion of Omaha’s streetcar project if the route were extended beyond the downtown-midtown route.

“If we can get a north line, it makes sense,” he said.

Map of Omaha streetcar proposed northern extension to the airport, as envisioned by State Sen. Justin Wayne, is in dark blue. (Courtesy State Sen. Justin Wayne)

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