Bike-friendly projects proposed by the last mayoral administration are about to get a serious review.
While new Mayor Jean Stothert says she supports efforts to make Omaha accessible by all forms of transportation, she wants to take a close look to see if more bike lanes, trails and other suggested improvements make sense for the city's needs and budget.
In her campaign, Stothert told voters she supported expanding options for public transportation, walking and biking, as long as it fit within existing budgets. With Stothert pushing to tighten city spending, some cyclists in Omaha's growing bicycle community feared that Stothert would slash bike lane projects or cut the city employee who oversees that work.
So far, that hasn't been the case. Planning for long-term road improvements that include space for bikes is moving forward, and Carlos Morales, Omaha's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, is still on the job.
Cycling advocates said they have been pleased to see Stothert attending events celebrating biking, walking and other outside activities. She spoke at the opening of bike lanes on Bellevue's Fort Crook Road in July, attended “Play Streets” events in north Omaha in August and last week joined the Benson-Ames Alliance for a walk through an improved section of Fontenelle Park.
But cycling advocates say there's still room for concern.
The mayor says she's not yet convinced that all the plans her predecessor left behind should remain on the city's to-do list. She expects to meet with planning officials this week to review existing ideas and get a better idea of what should stay or go. The challenge, she said, is figuring out the best use of limited dollars — especially in a place where cars still rule.
“About 98 percent of the people in Omaha commute by car,” Stothert said. “We may spend millions and millions on alternate forms of transportation, and we may still end up with about 95 percent of the people traveling by car.
“So when you've got to prioritize with a limited amount of funds, it makes sense to put money into our roads resurfacing and maintenance.”
Stothert hasn't asked for any changes so far, but she has publicly cast doubt on one project left over from Mayor Jim Suttle's administration: a planned $3 million bike/pedestrian bridge over the Big Papio Creek near TD Ameritrade's Old Mill headquarters.
At a recent town hall meeting, the mayor said it could amount to “a bridge to nowhere.”
The project is listed in the city's five-year capital improvement program, approved last summer as part of the budget process. About $366,000 was listed for spending on the project in 2014, with the bulk of the project to be paid for and completed in 2015.
City Councilman Franklin Thompson told the crowd that the project's biggest supporters had been the city's former mayor and planning director. Stothert said funding had not been officially designated for that project and added that she's “re-evaluating” the entire plan.
TD Ameritrade did not request the bridge project, said Kim Hillyer, a company spokeswoman. She said the company chose the location in part because of the trail system but has not taken a position on whether the bridge should be built.
People in the cycling community took note of Stothert's remarks.
“That comment the other night about a 'bridge to nowhere' — for people who do actually ride bikes, it's not the case,” said Sarah Johnson, owner of Omaha Bicycle Co. in Benson. “It's hard to hear that coming from someone who doesn't ride. There is a pretty large contingency of folks who do ride and that would make a difference for.”
Angela Eikenberry, one of the founders of the transportation advocacy group Mode Shift Omaha, was also troubled by the mayor's remarks. She said she's hopeful that they don't represent Stothert's overall opinion on alternative transportation — and that the mayor could be persuaded with evidence that getting more people out of their cars could save the city money in the long run.
“It will improve people's health, economic development, job access,” Eikenberry said. “There are a lot of reasons to be supporting this stuff no matter who you are, but especially if you're interested in ultimately saving taxpayer dollars.”
The list of projects that could cost — or save — those taxpayer dollars is long.
Morales, who was hired to work with the city in 2010, said officials are still putting together key pieces of a 20-mile loop of trails and bike lanes. When completed, it would provide cyclists with a link to destinations in downtown and midtown.
Studies also are underway for South 24th Street and South 32nd Avenue, which could get more bike-friendly features. And officials are doing early engineering work on a dedicated space for cyclists on Harney Street from midtown to downtown. Morales said he's also working to fix problems with a bike lane that has been added to Leavenworth Street.
Stothert has said she supports retaining Morales' position, unless it needs to be funded by the city. For now, his salary comes from the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, the Douglas County Health Department, Alegent Health and Live Well Omaha.
Morales said the same funds look to be secure through 2014, and he hasn't been told to change any of his efforts under a new administration.
“It's been business as usual,” Morales said. “I still reside in the Planning Department ... and we're still trying to figure out our direction. I haven't been told otherwise, so I'll continue working on the projects.”
The mayor said she's aware of the importance of bike projects in places like downtown and midtown as a tool to attract and keep young professionals. She's particularly interested in using private funding to help support projects such as a bridge that would link the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to destinations in north downtown. And she sees public transportation as a crucial part of any transportation planning.
But she said she doesn't support adding new taxes, fees or tolls to make those things happen.
“The bicycle program is important if we want to have a growing city and a vibrant city,” she said. “But I think we've just got to prioritize and make sure that I understand, even, what the entire plan is: where we've been, where we're at now, where we need to go.”
Advocates involved with the city's bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee say they want to be part of that process. They're currently trying to revamp that group so they'll be ready to present their ideas to Stothert.
Julie Harris, the active living manager for Live Well Omaha, said the number of people interested in bike facilities and issues in Omaha is growing.
“There are a lot of plans out there,” Harris said. “The main thing is that we want to ensure that things move forward with the stuff already on the books.”