Just twenty years ago, getting from the outer suburban edge of Omaha to downtown only took ten minutes. Now, in the time it takes a travel mug of coffee to get cold, an Omaha commuter will still be battling traffic on a typical workday. Coined by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce as the “Twenty Minute City,” most commute times in Omaha range between 24-25 minutes one way, with higher numbers during peak hours. Despite improvements like the Dodge Expressway, Omaha can’t keep up with the current traffic system.

A history of cul-de-sac development funneling into major metro streets has led to congestive street development. “Street development is the process of developing our networks from typical two lane streets to larger, four and five lane projects,” explained Derek Miller, City Planner for Omaha. “These connections are important for making traffic run easier, but all of this is adding capacity by constantly making room for cars, limiting space for other transportation projects.”

These new street improvements cost between $10 and $12 million dollars a year, 80 percent funded by the federal government and the remaining 20 percent from local funds. Local dollars come from street bonds allocated by voters every 4-5 years, essentially the equivalent of running a credit card to the max. Streets designed with a lifespan of 10-12 years are instead being maintained every 56 years.

“The current development plan is unsustainble,” said Miller. “We need to revaluate how to create an efficient long-range transportation plan.”

As population grew slowly the city’s footprint more than doubled after World War II. With the boom in automobile transportation, population density dropped in half while costs per mile soared. Nationally this trend led to unsustainable urban infrastructures supporting unhealthy lifestyles that cause additional costs on our quality of life.

Now the city realizes the urgent need to do make improvments, and those results are fast approaching the city planning board and city council after an extensive period of public input. On April 16th, the final TMP will be unvelied to the public, with an open house to follow on May 1st. The plan will then move through a public hearing with the Planning Board on May 2nd before moving to the City Council on May 22nd. After a few weeks of deliberation, the public will have a final opportunity to review the plan with a hearing on June 5th, and the TMP will then be up for an ordinance vote on June 12th. 

$300 Million Behind

In 2004 a funding study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) showed how far behind Omaha was in the use of arterial street networks. From this study an “unmet transportation need” was determined, equal to $295 million dollars in needed improvements. City employees worked to develop a solution to this massive need, and the Arterial Street Improvement Program (ASIP) was created.

This program requires new developments to pay a street improvement fee at the time of permit application. Other entities are agreeing to pay fees for development, including new Sanitary and Improvement Districts (SIDs), who are contributing small percentages of tax levies to certain street improvements. These and other fees will contribute to the sustainable function of such massive revisions. 

After two years of studying all projects in the current plan, along with new proposals, a prioritzed project list totalling $750 million dollars over the next 25 years has been developed, bringing with it options to evolve Omaha’s 14-year-old transportation plan into something more sustainable.

The Planning Department and consultant AECOM are drafting improvements that increase maintenance on existing streets and develop safe, alternative modes of transportation to the overall Omaha master transportation plan.

“It’s an appropriate moment to reexamine our transportation system,” said Sloan Dawson, Transportation Planner with MAPA. “We are in a recession, and there is not a push to build. We are looking at how to improve transit so that when the economy goes back up, the maximum number people will be affected positively by the revisions.”

These revisions will improve Omaha’s transportation system beyond the asphalt. By giving alternative modes of transportation a specific place in the master plan, more residents may look at commuting without their vehicles, relieving congestion on busy streets.

Density and 19 Percent of Your Household Income

Urban development in Omaha has also been showing a reversal from previous patterns. Expansion begins inward as the dense “city core,” the heart of a city where most employees spend their work days, begins to thin when people commute back and forth. The automobile is reponsible for this thinning as people gradually moved outside the bustling core.

But people are beginning to change their minds about the suburbs. With midtown housing stock redeveloped by companies such as Urban Village, residents are beginning to move back towards the core, a result of rising fuel costs and a financial need to live closer to work. An interesting phenomenon then occurs: tighter urban density.

Based on measurements like the average number of residential units per square mile, high-density areas are important for the efficiency of city services and the daily use of public transit and infrastructure.

“One of the things people are afraid of when we talk about density is that we are forcing them into certain housing, such as condos and town homes, and it’s just not true,” said Miller. In order to keep city services running effectively, residents need not stack on top of one another, but rather, the neighborhoods themselves must remain within city limits in order to promote the efficiency of services. By promoting more options for active transit, city planners are hoping to make commuting no longer a bother for residents, but rather, a safe and easy way to move about the city.

As Omaha’s transportation system continues to spread, development begins to become a burden. City planners realize the financial strain on continued expansion, and are focusing more on maintaining existing infrastructure instead of building new.

The problems are not just isolated to city and transit services. Families are bleeding money into an aging system. According to the City of Omaha Planning Department, transportation accounts for 19 percent of spending by the average household in America — as much as food and healthcare costs combined.

One of the keys to relieving financial burdens and improving city services lies in relieving congestion on the road and increasing density. This means fewer people driving to work because they’re close enough to walk, pedal or take public transportation. “Population density (and proximity of residential and commercial space) have a profound affect on transportation infrastructure and transportation choice,” said ModeShift member Kevin Flatowicz-Farmer. “An investment in infrastructure becomes more valuable if more people can utilize a bike share system or bus route.”

How We Got Here

Before a nerve system of roads dissected the city, Omaha relied on a close network of services to accommodate residents. In the mid-1800s close proximity to the Missouri River gave Omaha a foothold on the frontier and a quick way to transport goods. Density was high as many residents clustered around the core of the city to receive services. Proximity was key as services such as trash pickup, development projects and sewage maintenance reached the majority of residents within Omaha. Services were easily delivered, residents remained located in the city core.

The invention of the streetcar in 1889 changed urban development in Omaha.

Invented during the “Great Expanionary Period,” the streetcar gave workers an opportunity to live outside the core, as they no longer depended on foot travel. Neighborhoods from Bennington to Dundee were connected by the streetcar, faciliting further development and expansion.

After World War II, a widely recognized need for a better highway system led to the construction of Interstate 80 in the 1960s. This change led to a scattering of density as the location disparity between resident and workers increased.

With the automobile came commuting, leaving holes in the once high-density city core. In 1950, the population of Omaha was 251,117, with 5,200 residents per square mile, according to Census data. In 2010, the population increased to 465,413, with only 2,700 residents per square mile. Mapping software shows the once tight core resemble Swiss cheese as residents spread outwards.

A Master Plan For Transportation

In 1997, the Transportation Element of the overall master plan focused on a system that included a marriage of auto and active transportation options. These were supported by a detailed focus on land use and street improvements, among other policy changes. Over time, planning officials wanted to put even more emphasis on balancing all modes of transit.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) awarded the City of Omaha a “ Communities Putting Prevention to Work” grant to update the 14-year-old master plan. This award, along with funds from the city’s public works budget, helped hire consuling professionals AECOM, and the planning for revisions began.

“We have already begun programming projects developed in the TMP into our capital improvement process (CIP),” said Miller. “The CIP process is a six-year funding program for capital projects.”

The 2012-2017 CIP report states that transportation projects included in the CIP fit the master plan, emphasizing that future street and highway improvements reinforce a street pattern consisting predominantely of ‘dense networks’ to reduce congestion and costs.

MAPA assisted the City of Omaha with creating a 25 year project network to secure funding for these changes. In the CIP, development forcasts, future growth projections and traffic modeling were examined in order to “accommodate growth and keep traffic flow at an acceptable level of service.” These and other long range checks will help keep the priortized projects on track to implementation and within budget.

The proposed changes to the TMP also include a percentage of funds to focus on maintenance. “It is all about how much will be put in to infrastructure investment,” said Dr. Robert Blair, Director of the Urban Studies Program at University of Nebraska-Omaha. “The city can get more people using bike racks and lanes when they are closer to the people who want to use them.”

Keeping The City’s Character – Neighborhoods

Suburban development not only forces a city to develop outward by separating work and home, but also stresses the services that need to travel farther to accommodate residents. “As Omaha begins to annex and spread, city services are continuously being stretched,” said Ron Abdouch, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Center. “In this economic climate, services are already quite strained. You have to look at what capacity is in each department for services are that we pay taxes into.”

Neighborhoods strive to provide safe, walkable places for residents to call home and raise families. Sidewalk maintenance, cleanups and trash removal are crucial to keeping small areas functioning. “Neighborhoods and their residents are the history of a city,” said Abdouch. “The parks, the buildings, these are historical treasures. This is what makes Omaha great.”

Recognizing this need to protect neighborhoods, several projects are being implemented throughout Omaha over the next five years that take active transportation planning into account from the TMP. In 2012, historic districts in Florence, Dundee and Benson will see new traffic calming measures such as speed bumps and crosswalks, as well as more green space. The City hopes to not only improve neighborhoods, but also bring new business to the area by providing attractive pedestrian areas for residents to gather. Improvements will also travel westward, including adding east and westbound lanes on West Center Road and roughly 157th St. These lanes will reduce congestion by moving traffic outward from this major intersection.

With these proposed revisions to the current plan, a cold travel mug of coffee may soon be a rarity. Gentrification and the attraction of bicycling and public transit have resulted in a need for changes to the plan. As our health, taxes and aging roads can attest, there has never been a better time for these changes.

“The good news is that compared to major urban areas, Omaha is not terribly spread,” said Dr. Blair, Director. “We have a chance to take care of these issues before they become major problems.”

A City You Can Walk and Bike

Trends in past transportation plans have generally focused more on the automobile, leaving little room for other transit modes. Thanks to the collaboration of organizations like Live Well Omaha, Activate Omaha, Omaha Bike, The Douglas County Health Department, along with the City of Omaha, the push for a balanced transportation plan is now a reality. The spreading demand for safe options led to the 2010 hire of the first  Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, Carlos Morales, to specifically examine costs and needs for active transportation projects. Over 20 miles of on street bicyles lanes and connectors have since been implemented, giving cyclists a safe place to commute.

“There is plenty of demand and desire for improving alternative transportation, but we need to make it appealing to a wider audience,” said Miller. “We need the average, every day citizen to feel safe and confident to get out there and use it in order to make a difference.”

“Reutilizing the infrastructure we have today, pushing as much capacity from all modes of transit, will save tons of money,” said Miller. “A good example of this is the proposed Harney Street Bridge bicycle project.” Harney street east from Midtown Crossing to downtown currently has four lanes of one-way traffic. This $500,000 project would remove a lane and dedicate it to bicyclists without affecting the flow of traffic. Funds for the project will be allocated from 2010 Street and Highway bonds.

“This would be more expensive up front, but the base network of bicyclists it will create will be incredible.”

The public is catching on. In the summer of 2011, shared bicycles in Aksarben Village logged 1,000 trips from over 350 bike share members.

During the 2011 Heartland Active Transportation Summit, Omaha was honored with a bronze level community award from the League of American Bicyclists. We may not be Minneapolis or Amsterdam, but we are getting closer to making active transportation a safe option for those who choose it here in Omaha.

With a better bus system, congestion will ease. With more safe, efficient bike lanes, people will feel confident commuting without their vehicles. “The city really is trying to build the best city possible,” said Farmer. “We all want to help be a part of making this city a safe place to bike and drive.”

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