A typical curbside streetcar station shown here at 26th and Farnam Streets. (Courtesy of HDR, CIty of Omaha)
OMAHA — The latest design for Omaha’s $300 million-plus streetcar project calls for a shortened route, at least initially, through the urban core of Nebraska’s largest city.
Architects of the plan say the modifications would make it easier if, in the future, the route was to be extended into North Omaha or westward onto the growing University of Nebraska Medical Center campus.
The recommended changes — part of an early design phase to be reviewed next week by the city’s Urban Design Review Board — were discussed Tuesday during a news conference. Changes require approval by the Omaha Streetcar Authority.
Streetcar supporters said they called the media event to provide updates on various project elements. They also shared new conceptual images of stations that will rise at 16 stops along the streetcar route, which is to run east on Harney Street and west on Farnam Street, connecting the Blackstone area to downtown.
“This is really the community’s first opportunity to see images that are a product of a tremendous amount of work,” said Jay Noddle, chairman of the Omaha Streetcar Authority.
Noddle, also president of commercial development-focused Noddle Cos., spoke along with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, representatives of HDR engineering, city department heads and the president of the Greater Omaha Chamber.
Speakers noted that the 30% design phase of the streetcar was now complete, reviewed by the Omaha Planning Department and ready for presentation to the Urban Design Review Board.
It was during that design phase, they said, that a recommendation was made to end the streetcar’s western point at 39th and Farnam Streets, rather than 42nd and Farnam Streets.
That will allow UNMC leaders to evaluate if and how the route might cross onto or through the campus, potentially to the new Saddle Creek campus. Stothert said that UNMC would pay the bill if that extension were to happen.
Noddle pointed to the heavy construction and building projects ongoing around the medical center and said that more evaluation was warranted before determining how the streetcar fits in.
He said he was optimistic that UNMC officials would want to “take advantage” of the streetcar amenity and that the specific route was what had yet to be ironed out.
According to the latest design plan, the northern end of the streetcar route would stop at 10th Street and Capitol Avenue — rather than the original end point a few blocks farther north at 10th and Cass Streets.
The designers recommended that change, officials said, to allow for options for future extensions into North Omaha.
Noddle and the mayor said the City of Omaha has applied for a $300,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to study an extension of the streetcar path to North Omaha and possibly to the airport. The city would provide a 50% local match through a combination of funding and in-kind support, Stothert said.
Such an extension, she said, could connect riders to jobs, schools and services and lead to new development and housing along the route.
In the Nebraska Legislature, some lawmakers who have questioned the streetcar’s value to the city as a whole have advocated for an extension into North Omaha and toward the airport. State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha even proposed legislation that would have allocated state money for the north line.
There was no discussion during the news conference about streetcar extension into South Omaha, though Noddle said afterward that was always considered a future possibility.
Key points that city officials said will be reviewed Nov. 16 by the Urban Design Review Board:
- Of the stations planned at 16 stops along the route, 13 will be at the curb along Farnam, Harney, Capitol Avenue and Eighth Street and used for a single direction. Three will be in the median on Farnam Street between Midtown Crossing and the Blackstone district, shared by riders in both directions. The median stops are to create a safer pedestrian crossing and are expected to slow traffic in the corridor.
- Three Traction Power Substations to be built along the route will send electric current to overhead lines that power the streetcar. The TPSS sites are at Turner Boulevard and Farnam Street, 24th Avenue and Farnam Street, and 16th and Douglas Streets. The substations are to be “concealed” with landscaping murals and brick facing. The 16th and Douglas TPSS is to be built into an existing city-owned parking lot.
- The Vehicle Maintenance Facility is to be located near the south entrance of the CHI Health Center’s Lot A (on the northeast corner of Riverfront Drive and Eighth Street), and the entrance to Lot A is to be relocated. This 36,000-square-foot building is to house the six main streetcar vehicles yet to be purchased.
- Bids from the various carmaker contenders are to be opened Jan. 24, with the selection likely in February. The streetcar style is to provide “level boarding” to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and for capability for streetcars to run off-wire up to 40% of the route.
- The Farnam and Harney Street bridges over Interstate 480 are to be replaced during construction of the streetcar project. Both bridges are part of a previous plan by the Nebraska Department of Transportation to improve Omaha bridges, city officials said. NDOT is to provide a portion of the funding and is to approve design, lighting and pedestrian and bikeway features.
According to the Streetcar Authority website, the modern streetcar is to be up and running in 2027.
As planned, the streetcar will take passengers from downtown to midtown along Farnam and Harney Streets. There are a few stretches in the north-south direction as well, along Eighth and 10th Streets downtown.
Stothert reiterated Tuesday that first-phase construction will not raise the property tax rate.
The Omaha City Council earlier approved the sale of about $440 million in bonds to finance initial construction of the project. Bond debt would be paid off with TIF (tax-increment financing) revenue.
An independent consultant has told city leaders that anticipated new development and higher property values sparked by the streetcar should produce enough TIF revenue to pay off the bonds without raising the tax levy.
The mayor noted that the streetcar has spurred development including about $1 billion from the planned $600 million Mutual of Omaha downtown tower along the route and future changes around its current midtown campus.
Heath Mello, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, said that the streetcar is good for business and that he expects it to help the regional economy.
“If we’re going to be a city of the future, the modern streetcar is taking us there,” he said.
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