Cycling advocates and neighborhood supporters of a midtown Omaha bike lane project were thrown for a loop by the city's backing off the project, but officials insist that they had little choice.
The City of Omaha likely faced two or more additional years of review, possibly costing $100,000 or more, if it continued to pursue federal funding for a protected bike lane on South 32nd Avenue, City Engineer Todd Pfitzer said. That's more time and more expense than the city had anticipated, he said.
The Nebraska Department of Roads recommended that the city withdraw its pursuit of a $307,000 federal grant, and Omaha Public Works Department officials concurred, according to city and state records.
Pfitzer said it wasn't justified to spend that much money and time to obtain federal funding for such a relatively small project.
He noted that residents of the neighborhood were split on the project, a dynamic made clear by a November meeting of the Hanscom Park, Field Club and Ford Birthsite Neighborhood Associations.
At that meeting, city officials outlined a proposal for a protected bike lane on 32nd Avenue from Woolworth Avenue to Wright Street — while also telling neighbors that the project most likely wouldn't happen.
Supporters had been expecting the city to list the protected lane — a two-way bike route protected from vehicle traffic by a median — as the preferred option to solve speeding concerns that the neighborhood raised six years ago. City traffic engineers were considering building the bike lane, which would have been the first of its type in Omaha, plus other traffic calming measures, in conjunction with a 32nd Avenue project in 2014.
Instead, city officials announced that the project probably would not receive its primary source of funding, the $307,000 federal grant. The City of Omaha had committed about $80,000 to 32nd Avenue traffic calming.
“We were kind of told at the 11th hour that the funding wasn't going to come through,” said Jim Clements, president of the Hanscom Park Neighborhood Association. “We are curious to see what happened, and whether it can be overcome.”
Now, neighbors and cycling advocates worry that the city might resurface the stretch of 32nd Avenue without any measures to slow down speeders or improve alternative transportation.
“If all they do is repave the street, it would have the opposite effect of what the neighborhood wanted,” said Mike Battershell, a neighborhood leader. Traffic, he said, would move faster than before.
City officials say they're working on alternatives but haven't specified details. It is possible, Pfitzer said, that the street will be resurfaced and no traffic calming measures will be put in place.
“It kind of depends on what we hear back from residents,” Pfitzer said. “There's very little consensus over what people want.”
One option that city officials aired at the November meeting would include painting bike lanes on the street. It is unclear whether the city would have money for that, without the federal grant.
The money that the city had committed to 32nd Avenue remains in place. The federal grant can be used elsewhere in the city, Pfitzer said.
Local governments using federal money on road projects must study what effects their projects could have on the natural environment and any historic or cultural properties. That's required by federal laws designed to protect such resources.
Apparently, city traffic engineers working on the 32nd Avenue bike lane project hadn't foreseen much of an issue on that score before a November conference call with federal and state officials.
That meeting took place Nov. 18 — after the city had already told District 3 City Councilman Chris Jerram, neighborhood leaders and alternative transportation advocates about the protected bike lane concept and other traffic calming measures for 32nd Avenue.
The advocates were excited, and Jerram liked the proposal, too.
“I would have loved to do a protected bike lane there,” Jerram said. “I thought it would have been a perfect place to pilot the project.”
Just as important, he said, it would have slowed traffic on the street.
During the Nov. 18 conference call, concerns were raised about small sections of red stone sidewalk in the Field Club Historic District, stone curbing on 32nd Avenue and potential changes to Hanscom Park, as well as potential public disagreement over the proposal, according to minutes of the meeting.
Jill Dolberg, Nebraska State Historic Preservation officer, said in an interview that she did not view the historic resource issues as major problems in and of themselves.
“They were not insurmountable,” Dolberg said.
She said she envisioned eventually being able to sign off on the project, once the public was consulted on the sidewalks and curbs.
The Federal Highway Administration also did not see the problems as insurmountable, at least not yet. A spokesman said by email that the issues would require study but that the agency viewed the project as qualifying for a “categorical exclusion” review, a relatively low level of review under the National Environmental Protection Act.
But the concerns apparently raised red flags for the Nebraska Department of Roads and Omaha Public Works Department officials involved.
The State Historic Preservation Office “did not kill the project,” Pfitzer said.
But under federal law and Federal Highway Administration rules, the city could have had to, among other measures, thoroughly study the historical resources, collect public comment about them and plan how to avoid or mitigate damage to them. Cities often contract with consultants for such work.
The state and city worried that the concerns could bump up the project to a higher level of review, called an “environmental assessment,” Pfitzer said. Officials don't know exactly how much that would cost, but it would likely be “in six figures,” Pfitzer said.
Michael Kleffner, transportation enhancement engineer for the Nebraska Department of Roads, recommended to Omaha traffic engineers that “they consider withdrawing the project due to the level of effort for the amount of federal funds in the project,” according to state records.
So by the November neighborhood meeting, the city officials were ready to back off the project even as they were unveiling it to the public.
Jerram said he now is convinced that the project would not be doable with the federal grant.
“The fact is, there's only so much federal money, and what little we have (for this project) is not going to be enough to do all the extra studying we would have to do,” he said. “In the end, (the city) may have created a design that would be supported only by some in the neighborhood.”
That said, Jerram said supporters could seek other funding — such as a special assessment district agreed to by neighbors or private donations — for the bike lane project.
Jerram said alternatives must be discussed that will achieve the primary goals of reducing speeding, improving safety and helping alternative transportation. One such alternative, he said, could be painted bike lanes.
“The city is going to repave the street (32nd Avenue),” Jerram said. “Not repaving it is not an option. ... What's the next best thing we can do?”