What is the Right Transit Service to Eppley?

May 30, 2024
red streetcar moving through a city highlighting the omaha streetcar heading to eppley

Welcome to the first transit article for the new Grow Omaha news site! I am planning to write articles on relevant transit issues that cover a wide variety of topics and explain some of the latest activities, especially with the streetcar project as it unfolds. While I have a broad list of items to cover in the future, if there is anything you would like me to cover in the future, definitely drop me a line and let me know.

First, a little background about myself – I am a native of the Omaha area (grew up in Bellevue), and my entire 20-year career has been focused on transit planning. I spent 19 of those years in Denver, where most of my work was focused on planning and implementing the Regional Transportation District (RTD) FasTracks program. I currently work as a private consultant, and my latest projects cover Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), streetcar, light rail and intercity rail for communities in Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma.

Being the first transit article, this may end up longer than most, because I will spend some time providing more background information than usual.

The local issue that I get asked about the most is where should the Omaha Streetcar be extended next, particularly asking about a possible extension to the airport. For those who want to know more about the current Omaha Streetcar project, head over to their website for more information:


As a little more background about myself, when I was a college student at UNL and trying to spend most of my time in Omaha, I started a grassroots group called Omaha Streetcar (that was omahastreetcar.com), which fizzled out in the early 2010s without much exciting going on. Back then, our group was championing the idea that was brought up in the Destination Midtown plan (2004), the streetcar route running from downtown to midtown Omaha (at that time, it called for a line over to Creighton University, something that was also included in the Downtown Omaha 2030 plan from 2010).

Predating all of these plans was the “original” streetcar plan from the 1990s. It is hard to track down exactly who had the idea first – an Omaha World-Herald article from March 5, 1995, claims that Mayor P.J. Morgan “lobbied in 1993 for a line connecting the Old Market, the zoo and the stadium” and also mentions that it was an idea “floated by city officials the past two decades.” At the time of that article in 1995, Hal Daub (who would later spearhead the concept) was mayor and Robert Curttright Jr. was the CEO at Metro Area Transit.

So when people ask me where should the streetcar be extended next, I always look to where our previous studies have pointed, which includes the most recent work done by Council Bluffs to connect a line along First Avenue and across the Missouri River. Diving deeper into these extensions – north, south, east and west – is the topic for a future article!

Note that none of these previous or current studies includes extending the streetcar to the airport. However, there has been some recent activity to indicate interest. In 2023 (and again in 2024), Senator Justin Wayne introduced LB477 to appropriate funds to the Omaha Streetcar Authority to study a north extension. Along with this, Senator Wayne expressed interest in an extension that would build a streetcar north from 19th Street and Farnam/Harney to Lake Street, east to 16th Street, north to Fort Street, then east to Abott Drive and over to the airport terminal. This also fits in with a proposed Eppley Airfield business park that is to be developed south of Fort Street and west of Abott Drive.

The thinking here is that such an extension would connect Creighton University, the heart of North Omaha, the new airport development, and the airport itself. Another strategy with this is that it avoids going through Iowa, which a route going along Abbott Drive and through Carter Lake would have to figure out – although the Council Bluffs extension will need to deal with this governance issue as well. Even more important are two central questions that need to be dealt with: with the extension being 5.5 miles long (over twice the length of the starter line, could this really be built and would anyone really ride a line that long between downtown and the airport?

Earlier this year, the City of Omaha was awarded a $300,000 federal grant to create a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) plan for a potential north extension of the streetcar. So things are definitely moving in the right direction for this. I believe a north extension has merit, although just how far north? Most modern streetcar systems in the United States start out small and grow incrementally with extensions here and there and I believe this approach would benefit the Omaha Streetcar: figure out what works best to start north – perhaps to Millwork Commons and/or Creighton University – get the funding secured for that, see how the development and ridership responds, and then continue north to foster more development and community connections as interest and funding warrant.

Going back to the “direct” airport connection along Abbott Drive, I do not believe that a streetcar is the right type of transit technology for this. Streetcars are typically slower with more stops along the line, serving as a sort of movable sidewalk to enhance urban development. That does not quite fit the Abbott Drive corridor. Something like the current Route 106 Eppley Connector suits this corridor better – a quicker Metro bus that has fewer stops along the way. Also consider that the distance for an extension would be about 3.3 miles – not as long as the 5.5 miles via North Omaha, but still longer than the starter line that is currently under development.

I have taken many different modes to and from Eppley while flying in and out of Omaha over the last couple of decades, even walking from the airport to downtown (it is not really that far, and a nice walk to explore some of Omaha’s urban neighborhoods). One of the best ways I have found to get downtown is to utilize the hotel shuttles. These seem to work well for getting visitors between downtown and the airport and also provide a nice connection to downtown’s transit options, which will eventually include the streetcar.

I try to rely on transit when traveling to other airports across the United States and have had a variety of positive and negative experiences. Some of my best experiences are places such as Portland, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago and Cleveland, where you can take one train directly from the airport to downtown. Note that these cities have airports with much more passenger traffic than Omaha’s. Even the smallest airport in the United States to have direct rail transit connection (considering you can easily walk from the terminal to the rail station and rail service is at least every 15 minutes during most of the day), Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, boasts 4,237,795 passenger boardings in 2022 compared to 2,204,395 at Eppley Airfield in Omaha.

When I was at the Regional Transportation District in Denver, one of the new rail lines we built connected downtown Denver with Denver International Airport – this opened in 2016. Our goal was to provide reliable train service with a trip just over 30 minutes between downtown and the airport (it is 37 minutes today). Because of the long distance, we chose commuter rail technology, which uses faster trains that can operate at top speeds of about 80 miles per hour. Most of the passengers that ride the new A-Line to Denver International Airport are not travelers, but the people that work at the airport. So the most popular times for ridership are work-shift start and end times early in the morning, mid-afternoon and late at night. This is something important to keep in mind for Omaha – right-sizing the airport transit service to travelers and employees.

I will get into different types of transit technology in a later article, although I do not believe that a streetcar is right for connecting downtown Omaha and the airport. If Omaha does decide a rail connection to the airport is a goal, even with the small number of passengers and employees, and lack of development between the airport and downtown, something like a light rail connection would be better suited, similar to Salt Lake City or St. Louis.

For now, I believe we have good connections between the airport and downtown. I would like to see us work on leveraging these connections better, perhaps by trying an “on-demand” shuttle that could make a central stop in downtown Omaha, such as at 8th & Farnam Street, which would serve both the ORBT bus and the streetcar. This kind of service could take the form of common microtransit or on-demand transit services by utilizing both reservations and walk-up passengers, running without a specific schedule while using real-time public information and an estimated frequency such as running every 15 minutes. The 8th & Farnam stop could be known as a “mobility hub,” which are transit stops or stations with multimodal connections.

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