Erastus Benson

Erastus Benson

by Ken Mayer

Some years ago, a friend of mine asked me, over lunch, if I thought the city would ever have a light rail system. Before I could answer, we heard a shout from across the dining room to the effect of “You bet we will!” It was the voice of Omaha’s irrepressible former Mayor Hal Daub.

In 2003, the light rail proposal was defeated by a single vote before the city council.

In many ways, the history of Omaha has been a history of transportation. Edward Creighton and promoter George Francis Train were largely responsible for the city landing the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad. By 1872, the Union Pacific had opened the first railroad bridge across the Missouri River to Omaha.

Meanwhile, in 1867, Ezra Millard, Andrew Hanscom and Augustus Kountze formed the Omaha Horse Railway Company to provide service in the city. By the late 1870s, the line had five miles of track and 495,000 passengers annually. The city even boasted a cable car between 1884 and 1895. An electric streetcar system was built by Erastus Benson between Omaha and Benson specifically to promote that suburb’s development.

I had a bit of a flashback to Benson’s development tactic the other day as I listened to Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham speak at a meeting of Downtown Omaha Inc.

Cunningham, as a kid, frequented downtown, as I did. Most Saturdays, my friend and I would board the #8 bus for a day of shopping and dining in the Central Business District. We frequented such elegant bistros as the Woolworth’s lunch counter or the Virginia Café. We spent hours in Brandeis or Keiser’s book store and, weather permitting, walked across the Douglas Street Bridge to World Radio for whatever electronic gizmos we needed.

But I digress. Cunningham reported that there are currently about a thousand new housing units planned or under construction in downtown. This adds to about a thousand now online and a step toward the target of some 5,700 called for in the master plan.

Of course, a city planning director has a whole city to think about, and one of Cunningham’s notion’s that struck me as particularly interesting was the virtual expansion of the Central Business District to the west.

This could be accomplished by what the planners now refer to as “Transit Oriented Development.” It seems quite similar to what Erastus Benson was up to over 100 years ago. Benson knew he couldn’t develop his 900 acres of farmland, nine miles out of what was then Omaha, if people had no way to get there.

Today, the situation is reversed. Over the last few years, the places we live and work and play have been developed. They just need to be connected.

Cunningham spoke about a study under way to look at the feasibility of connecting the dots,so to speak. The nodes could comprise downtown, Midtown Crossing, the Med Center, UNO, Aksarben Village and the Crossroads.

This seems to me to be a great way to connect and expand the old urbanism of downtown to the new urbanism of neighborhoods to the west.

Note as well that the word “transportation” is being used. As much as I love riding a train, thinking only in terms of the romance of light rail may be shortsighted. One of the most often cited and classic business mistakes was committed when the railroads saw themselves strictly as rail carriers, not as transportation companies.

A system of transportation connecting the nodes would have to accommodate all transportation modes. That means pedestrians, bicycles, buses, trains and yes, even cars would all have to coexist safely in the corridors.

And while we are at it, why not throw communication into the mix? I’d be much more likely to board a bus if I knew my tablet could access a Wi-Fi network during the entire trip. Even if I’m on my bike, getting weather updates, movie times or where the best snacks are would make the trip much more fun.

We have opportunities as a city to leap forward in many respects by utilizing proven technology and big picture thinking. It’s nice to see that some of the bureaucrats get it.

Ken Mayer’s monthly column, The Public Space, appears on the Omaha by Design web site.