Proposed street car: Money not well spent

Photo Courtesy of The Omaha World Herald

Jessica Wade

The campaign for Omaha’s next mayor is under way, and it seems incumbent Jean
Stothert has significant competition from former State Sen. Heath Mello.

So far, one of the biggest questions of the campaign is how the next mayor will handle infrastructure, including the problem of Omaha’s weary streets, the possibility of a streetcar line and downtown development.

Whichever candidate wins, both Mello and Stothert plan to improve public transport, which is great news for students like UNO freshman Hilario Mendez, who relies on public transit to get to his internship downtown.

“Most of the time I use the metro to get to my job downtown,” Mendez said. “I have no car, so the bus plays an essential part to arriving on time for work.”

The idea of a streetcar that would run from downtown to midtown is quickly gaining traction and is supported by both candidates. However, Mello and Stothert have different ideas on how to fund the estimated $140 million project.

Mello has proposed an infrastructure bank which would consist of money gathered from local and federal taxes as well as private donations. Mello said this system would help to diversify the ways in which the city brings in money for infrastructure.

Stothert suggested other options such as business improvement districts, tax incentives, and privately donated money.

Stothert and Mello aren’t the only people advocating for a streetcar. Midtown 2050 Corp. is a new nonprofit developed by some of Omaha’s most successful employers.

The goal of this group is to “maximize midtown’s potential” by linking the businesses and university campuses and neighborhoods of the area with infrastructure, like a streetcar, that will help to connect these important Omaha institutions.

A streetcar would be great for the businesses and universities of downtown and midtown, but to UNO students, that money would be better spent improving roads and the current metro system.

Mendez said that considering the geographical location of where the streetcars would be placed, they likely wouldn’t assist UNO students in any way.

“Whether you are taking the number two bus from Dodge Campus or the number 11 from Scott Campus, both buses can drop you off pretty deep downtown, removing any assistance or necessity form the streetcars,” Mendez said.

Former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford was recently hired as Midtown 2050 Corp.’s president and executive director.

Ashford told the Omaha World-Herald that the group sees a vigorous revitalization of midtown as critical to Omaha’s economic progress. He added that it would not only generate more activity and tax revenue, but it’s also needed to attract talented young employees and entrepreneurs.

Referring to UNMC’s Buffett Cancer Center and the major corporations in the area, Ashford said, “they have to compete for the best talent they can keep for a long time, and that
means young people.”

There’s something else that will attract young people: affordable universities. Rather than using tax dollars to fund a streetcar, the state of Nebraska would benefit further by possibly putting the project on the back burner and focusing on fixing current infrastructure issues. Or, even using some of that money to make up for NU’s budget problem.

Whatever outcome of the election in April, hopefully the mayor of Omaha will implement a plan that will benefit all of Omaha, not just midtown and downtown.