A small change has come to your morning commute. More drivers are noticing the blinking of bicycle lights, and the bus system is seeing a rise in activity.

“[There] is a dramatic increase in bike rack usage on Metro buses,” said Sloan Dawson, planner with the Metropolitan Agency Planning Agency (MAPA). “As of June 30, utilization nearly doubled the 2011 rate for the January to June time period — 7,269 bikes were recorded on bus-attached racks.”

With a new Transportation Master Plan (TMP), Omaha stands poised to make significant steps forward in integrating public transit and active transit – walking and biking – as crucial in transportation planning to cut costs for long-term sustainability and boost resident health.

Approved by the Planning Board in May of this year, the plan has been stuck in city departments, with revisions slowing its progress and a different document moving through City Council on August 21.

Many cities, including blizzard prone Minneapolis, have taken steps to make bicycling and transit easy to use for residents, cutting infrastructure costs and boosting activity. Omaha grassroots group ModeShift has led the charge on the importance of having safe options when traveling in Omaha. A federal grant allowed the city to hire the first Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator in September of 2009 to focus on active transit.

Over the last year, the City of Omaha Planning Department and its partners have developed the TMP in a series of meetings and public comment periods. The first priorities public meeting took place in September of 2011, with three workshops, a TMP “kickoff” meeting, and an open house leading up to May. In addition to these meetings, citizen input was utilized to form Bicycle and Pedestrian, Development and Design and Engineering Advisory committees.

In early 2012, the plan was due to be approved and the projects listed in development by early fall. However, Public Works and Planning directors have altered what the Planning Board approved.

“Two primary changes were made to the TMP besides some small grammatical edits,” said Derek Miller, City Planner. “The evaluation metrics in the plan are now categorized as “proposed” metrics, and the prioritized list was removed. Staff felt that we needed to spend more time on how the city will evaluate and prioritize transportation projects in the future. Since we will be modifying the metrics the prioritized list is, in a sense, out of date.”

The revised document lists the metrics to help the TMP reach its four goals of providing mobility options, creating a safe and healthy environment, create connected neighborhoods, and facilitate sustainable economic growth.

Though the metrics are listed in the updated TMP, not much has changed between the original document and the newly released report. “The revised TMP contains the original metrics but they are now categorized as proposed metrics,” said Miller. “Nothing has changed except the title.”

Despite these details, some ModeShift members are concerned about the changes.

“By downgrading the metrics and the project priorities in the plan, they are also downgrading the concrete objectives to which the city can be held accountable,” said ModeShift member Kevin Flatowicz-Farmer. “In other words, the metrics may not resemble the final priorities of the city. The promise by city staff to revise the metrics and repopulate the priorities list, at some point, seems counter to the open spirit in which the plan was conceived. We have recently learned that a citizen advisory council is being created to advise staff on the metrics and planning priorities. Whether the city will actually heed the advice of that panel is to be seen.”

The Planning Department website lists the complete revisions to the TMP, along with the proposed metrics. Titled “Transportation Master Plan Revision Notes,” the document contains the location, change, and reason for the adjustments for each section of the plan. Some are minor, including adding an Acknowledgement section in the Table of Contents. Others, such as Section 7: “Recommendations” have larger edits, including making sure proposed projects within the TMP are planned thoroughly enough to have a construction start date.

These changes may alter the timeline in which projects are prioritized in Omaha. “Over the next year staff will revise and modify the proposed set of evaluation metrics and develop a new list. This will be led by a steering committee with a great deal of staff involvement.”

The Planning Department remains confident that projects will still be carried out over the next few months. Several projects are already underway.

“Examples include the Leavenworth re-striping and the two way conversions of the 19th and 20th streets north of downtown. We will also begin a more in depth study of the Harney Street Cycle track (Market to Midtown Connector),” said Miller. “Another major effort that will kick off sometime next year will include an update to the City’s Land Use Element of the Master Plan, a project recommended in the TMP.”

As with all steps in the development of the TMP, actual implementation of these projects depends heavily on political will. “The challenges facing transportation options in Omaha are greater than one document,” said Flatowicz-Farmer. “A plan cannot reverse forty years of development patterns that have created an automobile-only environment.”

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