- Associated Press - Saturday, April 20, 2019

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Omaha’s biggest mass transit investment in decades is coming.

Now officials are out in the community with a message: Get ready.

After years of preparations - and some delay - Metro transit is preparing for an April 2020 debut of Omaha’s first bus rapid transit line. It’s no streetcar, but the rapid transit line will try to capitalize on the same ideas to get people out of their cars: a sleek, modern ride along a dedicated route that’s convenient, quick and tech-friendly.

It’s called ORBT, for Omaha Rapid Bus Transit. And the $35 million project is happening, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

The first visible progress could appear in June as a contractor starts building 24 new raised station platforms - 12 eastbound and 12 westbound - along Dodge and Douglas Streets. By summer or fall, new glass and metal stops will be installed at the stations; Metro has already awarded a contract to a firm to build them off-site.

In other cities, similar setups have shown success in drawing riders. Not only that, but real estate developers drawn by the riders have a record of investing millions of dollars into new shops and housing within walking distance of the stations. The developer of a new apartment building proposed for 46th and Dodge Streets said ORBT helped pique his interest in the site.

In recent weeks, the City Planning Department has met with neighborhoods up and down the line to talk about shaping the real estate development that planning officials fully expect to happen.

City planners recently came to the Gifford Park neighborhood, within the shadow of the Midtown Crossing development, to discuss potential zoning changes and invite neighbors into the planning process. Officials broached the idea of new seven-story apartment buildings lining Dodge Street, stirring some apprehension among two dozen Gifford Park neighbors.

City Planning Director Dave Fanslau said he wants Omaha to take advantage of the opportunity that’s coming.

“It’s going to be something that Omaha has never experienced before,” he said after the meeting.

Omaha is no mass transit city - only about 1% of commuters use it in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, and Metro ridership has dropped as cheap gas keeps people in their cars. At the same time, interest in mass transit within the community seems to be growing, from new civic organizations to major employers and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

But for people to turn to mass transit, it requires an investment, and the ORBT system provides that, said Craig Moody, who chairs a stakeholder committee for the project and is managing partner at Omaha’s Verdis Group, which provides sustainability consulting services.

“I think the interest in transit is much higher than most people realize,” said Moody, who also serves on the Omaha Public Power District board.

The 60-foot-long, accordion-centered buses have three doors and bike racks inside. Riders will get off and on via a raised platform, like at a train station.

“To the extent it can function like a train, it does,” said Curt Simon, Metro’s executive director.

So that’s the bus part.

The rapid transit part comes from a line intended to run some 26 to 28 minutes at any time between downtown and Westroads Mall. The buses will make fewer stops than any regular bus, with technology to hold a green light longer and a dedicated ORBT lane east of 30th Street.

And it will be tech-friendly, too. The stations and buses will have Wi-Fi. Ticket kiosks will allow for prepaid boarding. And other tech upgrades coming to Metro will allow people to track bus locations on their devices.

But the bus schedule is supposed to be less of an issue with ORBT. Instead, Simon said, riders can just expect the bus to come every 10 minutes during the day.

Metro received a $14.9 million federal transportation grant in 2014 and has reallocated other federal funds. It’s also received contributions from the Peter Kiewit Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation, Mutual of Omaha, the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Metropolitan Utilities District.

Jason Rose, Metro’s outreach coordinator, said Metro has been out in the community hundreds of times to talk to thousands of people about the ORBT project. He said that when he used to ask people if they had heard of ORBT, a few would occasionally raise their hand. Now, he said, it’s rare when people in his audience haven’t heard of it.

Rose said people are picking up on the idea that a more robust transit system can make Omaha a better place overall.

“People are kind of starting to see that story unfold,” he said.

In Gifford Park, ORBT’s potential impact was a lot for some residents to take in, with one neighbor recently saying development along the route will radically change the neighborhood’s character.

Kellie Johnston Dorsey, a city planner leading the discussion, said that under current zoning along Dodge Street, a developer could already build a 70-foot-tall building. But she said the city is trying to create plans that the neighborhood will be happy with moving forward.

Meetings are planned into May at different stops along the line.

Chris Foster, a 34-year Gifford Park resident and longtime neighborhood advocate, said that to the neighborhood, development means “a lot more than just pouring money into a building.” It should also mean forming connections with the neighborhood and families, he said, as well as offering affordable housing and youth programs.

“Maybe it will be OK,” Foster said. “But we’re really kind of saying, ‘Woah.’ “

Johnston Dorsey sought to reassure neighbors that nothing has been decided about the zoning plans.

“These are all discussions that are still happening,” she said.

Simon said that ORBT has been a complicated project to pull together but that it’s been gratifying so far.

“It will be more gratifying when I can just get on it the first day,” he said.


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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