This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
OMAHA — A majority of Omaha voters participating in a recent survey about the $300 million-plus urban streetcar project gave it a thumbs down.
The Heartland Strategy Group, a government relations, political and public affairs consulting firm with offices in Omaha and Lincoln, commissioned the poll as part of a “public opinion series.”
Blueprint Polling, on behalf of Heartland, surveyed 428 registered voters on April 4-5 via live phone interviews and text messaging.
The sole topic was the modern-day streetcar — which has been given the green light by Mayor Jean Stothert and the Omaha City Council.
Many business leaders and the Greater Omaha Chamber also have championed the project as a way to accelerate development and lure talent to the city.
Mutual of Omaha’s decision to construct a $600 million office high-rise at 15th and Farnam Streets, the former site of the main public library, also hinged upon the streetcar materializing.
Full speed ahead
As planned, the streetcars would roll between downtown and midtown, east and west along Farnam and Harney Streets, but also along a few north-south sections of downtown’s Eighth and 10th Streets.
Extensions into North Omaha have been discussed, as well, and a Nebraska lawmaker has proposed legislation that would allocate state money for the north line.
But, according to the poll results, only about 19% of voters surveyed support the city’s plan to build a streetcar system, while 68% were opposed, and 13% were unsure.
Stothert refuted the poll’s validity, specifically challenging a question that framed how the project would be paid for.
“The push poll is based on false information,” she said. “The city does not plan to spend $440 million on bonds and the Omaha taxpayers will not be responsible for paying back the bonds. I don’t put much faith in a poll based on inaccurate statements.”
Stothert said the city has approved all steps necessary to move forward, and the Omaha Streetcar Authority is proceeding with a schedule to be operational in 2026.
Barry Rubin of Heartland Strategy noted that the finance-related question was posed after participants already had answered an underlying question about streetcar support. “That had zero bearing on the 68% opposition,” he said.
“The mayor can kill the messenger all she wants, but frankly she should be doing a better job of convincing people of why it is needed,” Rubin said.
The Omaha City Council earlier approved the sale of about $440 million in bonds to finance initial construction of the streetcar project. Bond debt would be paid off with tax-increment financing revenue. An independent consultant has told city leaders that anticipated new development and higher property values sparked by the streetcar should produce enough TIF revenue to pay off the bonds without a tax rate increase.
In analyzing responses, Heartland said opposition to the streetcar appeared strong across political parties, with 27% of Biden voters and 19% of Trump voters endorsing the plan.
Younger respondents were more favorable toward the streetcar project, Heartland said. About 33% of respondents between ages 18 and 34 supported it, compared to support in the teens by voters over age 44.
Results showed strong support among voters who think they will use the streetcar system, Heartland said.
About 65% of respondents overall believed they would never use the downtown-midtown streetcar route.
Heartland reported a poll margin of error of plus or minus 4.7%.
Results were weighted by age, race, gender, education and party registration to match a likely municipal general election audience, the group’s statement said.