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Advocates for streetcar connecting midtown and downtown give project a new push

 

A new organization, Modern Streetcar Advocates, is launching an effort today to build public support for an Omaha streetcar.

The people behind the push believe the idea has more backers than previously thought. They think much of the opposition is based on a lack of information. And they hope more people will support the idea once they understand the case for creating Omaha’s first modern streetcar line, through midtown and downtown Omaha.

“A lot of people are really enthusiastic about the idea of a streetcar here in Omaha,” said Jay Lund, a principal of GreenSlate Development and a leader of Modern Streetcar Advocates. “But some people have formed an opinion about the streetcar without having access to any information.”

 

Omaha’s public conversation about the streetcar has gone quiet since spring, when it was a hot topic in the city’s mayoral race. Many people have viewed a streetcar line as an expensive frill that wouldn’t be used, a novelty that would take city money away from other needs such as street repair and maintenance. But the idea has not gone away.

The group was to launch a website today, ModernStreetcarAdvocates.org, with information about studies that led to the concept of a streetcar through downtown and midtown Omaha, success stories from other cities such as Kansas City and projected economic benefits. The group is working with the Omaha marketing firm Emspace.

The modern streetcar would not be the old-timey tourist trolley that many people imagine, said Mike Moylan, whose Shamrock Development leads the new Capitol District redevelopment in downtown Omaha. Instead, he said, it would be an economic development tool that would form an important part of a wider transportation plan for all of metropolitan Omaha.

A streetcar “is going to increase the tax base,” Moylan said. “It’s going to increase the density, and allow for more, much larger and better development in this urban core from downtown to midtown.”

The Modern Streetcar Advocates website will have a sign-up sheet for supporters.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for them to stand up for the idea by adding their name to the list of supporters on the site because showcasing community support is crucial to moving the project forward,” Lund said.

GreenSlate is among 20 businesses and individuals identified as financial supporters of Modern Streetcar Advocates. Many of the supporting businesses — such as GreenSlate, Clarity Development, Urban Village, NuStyle Development and Shamrock Development — are involved in real estate development in midtown or downtown Omaha. The University of Nebraska Medical Center and East Campus Real Estate, the real estate arm of Mutual of Omaha, are listed as supporters.

The streetcar route that has been floated would travel back and forth along 10th Street between TD Ameritrade Park and the Old Market, and along Farnam Street from downtown to UNMC at 42nd Street. Proponents say it could be expanded in the future.

Former Omaha Mayors P.J. Morgan and Hal Daub are listed among several “champions of Omaha’s streetcar vision,” as is restaurateur Willy Theisen.

The group’s initial list of “advocates” includes Rachel Jacobson, founder and director of Film Streams; Ray Schueneman, a blacksmith who hand forges putters; and Chris Oltmans, co-owner of the Blackstone Social tavern at 39th and Farnam Streets.

Oltmans said he supports the concept not only because the streetcar would run past Blackstone Social’s front door on Farnam Street, in the heart of the Blackstone District.

“What this would do to continue to drive more living space, more development, would be great for the city,” he said.

The architecture and engineering firm HDR Inc. is working on advanced conceptual engineering for a streetcar line. It’s supposed to pin down in more detail what work it would take and what it would cost to actually build a streetcar line. A study done for the city last year estimated that it would cost $156 million to build and equip a streetcar line from TD Ameritrade Park downtown to 42nd and Farnam Streets in midtown. It would cost about $7.5 million a year to operate the line, that study estimated.

Mayor Jean Stothert expects to receive the results of that study in late November or early December. If a streetcar is feasible, the mayor would then appoint a committee to study streetcar financing, said Carrie Murphy, a spokeswoman for Stothert.

Modern Streetcar Advocates wants to restart the conversation in a cooler manner than occurred in the spring.

“It’s like any political issue,” Lund said. “You hear a loud, more vocal minority. We think there’s a large, silent majority that believes this is a good idea.”

He invited opponents to visit the website as well.

“We want to hear from the entire community,” Lund said.

He and his fellow advocates say Omaha needs a streetcar. They say the streetcar wouldn’t take away from street construction and would pay for itself with the development and other economic activity it would create.

They point to Kansas City, Missouri, as an example. A two-mile streetcar line in downtown Kansas City opened in May 2016. It had 1.4 million riders last year. Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce, said in March that the streetcar has 5,400 daily riders. He said then that the streetcar had contributed to $1.8 billion in downtown real estate development.

The newly formed Omaha group sees a streetcar as essential to growth in the city’s central business district and to metropolitan Omaha’s overall growth. Lund acknowledged that his business would benefit from a streetcar through midtown, but he said the rest of Omaha also would benefit from economic growth in its central business district.

Moylan likened the potential economic boost of a streetcar to the growth in the West Dodge Road corridor that followed the construction of an elevated expressway and other improvements.

“Look what happened to West Dodge Road when we put the proper infrastructure in from 114th Street to Elkhorn,” he said. “Look at the quality and strength of the development along that corridor because of the investment we made in that corridor.”

A streetcar would have a similar effect, Moylan said.

“There’s an overall transit plan here that Omaha needs to get their arms around,” he said. “And the streetcar is the solution for our urban part of Omaha, like the West Dodge Road corridor was the solution for our suburban area.”


To learn more

Modern Streetcar Advocates has scheduled an event for people to learn more about the project on Nov. 14 from 4 to 6 p.m. at The Pella at Blackstone, 303 S. 41st St.

Steve Jensen and Derek Miller from the City of Omaha Planning Department are scheduled to speak.

SO MUCH TO DO!

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