In a wave of bike helmets and Velcro gloves, over 70 cyclists pedaled to a public forum hosted by the City of Omaha Planning Department. The two hour presentation discussed a proposed revision of Omaha’s Transportation Master Plan.

The cling of bike shoe clips and rattling car keys could be heard as motorists, walkers, bus riders and others filled 250 seats in the Scott Conference Center. Activate Omaha, Metro Area Planning Agency and others were represented. City council members Chris Jerram, Pete Festersen and Jean Stothert attended. The atmosphere was rich with excitement and relief because finally, 14 years after the City established the existing plan, changes may be coming.

The revisions proposed by the City and its consultants will address urban commuter ills like traffic congestion, degraded roads and inefficient streets. Updates will be made to existing transportation policy and will address all possible modes of transportation, including creating more bike lanes and creating a more efficient bus system.

The City hopes to move away from a vehicle dependant transportation system and create safe options for residents who choose to commute without an automobile. These revisions have been adjusted to make transportation as efficient as possible from now until 2035.

The focus of the revision is to give motorists, bus riders and cyclists’ options when leaving their homes. “The plan will look at fixing and replacing existing infrastructure,” said Paul Moore, principal consultant for the project and lead speaker for the evening. “We will be filling the gaps in development and revitalizing property.”

The idea and vision for the revised transportation plan was developed after a series of meetings between Moore’s team and the City of Omaha through November and December of last year.

“We created four goals,” said Moore. “We wanted to provide balanced options for all commuters, create a safe and healthy environment, help make neighborhoods livable and connected, and see economic returns to the city with fiscal sustainability.”

Through February and March of 2011, committees were formed by the City and members began looking at proposed transportation projects in north and south Omaha. The third leg of planning, from April until now, included determining how to efficiently implement chosen goals. Proposed projects were spread in ten areas throughout the metro within existing streets and properties, minimizing new development.

Public input has been made a top priority for the city and its partners during the revision process. Advocacy groups have been born out of the hustle of the last few months.

ModeShift Omaha, representing commuters, says public input is crucial. “Doing nothing is no longer an option,” according to the organization’s blog. “We can no longer afford to deny people real transportation options. The cost of continuing with car-only transportation will bankrupt our city and deny real freedom of choice to every Omahan.”

Moore cited statistics gathered by ModeShift. “For every car on the road, it costs the City of Omaha 5.6 cents in road maintenance. For every bike, it is 1 cent,” he said. If the current plan is not revised to make biking and roads safer, and buses more efficient, the 130,000 new residents expected in the Omaha area by 2035 will be incredibly staggered: 120,000 west of I-680, and only 10,000 in the core, resulting in even more traffic congestion.

“If the current plan is not revised, this is a fairly realistic picture of what will happen with congestion if nothing changes,” said Moore.

Though the vision for the revised plan has been set by the City and its consultants, The City of Omaha Planning Department will need to approve the plan before it moves to City Council. Once it is passed by both entities, funding for the plan will need to be secured before implementation can begin.

The funding for the current revision project through is through the “Communities Putting Prevention to Work” grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Funding for actual implementation of the proposed projects is yet to be determined.

The City will announce another public meeting in the next month to continue to hear the voices of those who will benefit the most from the revisions: the residents of Omaha. “Now that they are near the end of the planning process, we need to get the message out about the importance of public input,” said Kevin Flatowicz-Farmer, ModeShift Omaha member. “We want to make sure everyone has a chance to see the Plan and make their voices and opinions heard.”

“After all,” said Farmer, “without public participation we can hardly say we live in a true democracy.”

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