Earlier this year, Amazon announced that they were seeking a location for a second headquarters. Among their preferences for the host city were that it should have a population of over 1 million, can attract and retain a workforce and have a good public transportation system. In October, the city of Omaha announced that it would submit its bid in the contest, but it hardly needs to be said that Omaha is simply not competitive. Just under 1 million people reside in the Omaha metro, the workforce in Omaha is aging and our public transportation leaves a lot to be desired.
This should be a wake-up call to the city government. A number of commenters and firms lament Omaha’s inability to attract young workers and talent. While the current boom of developments at Aksarben, Creighton, Blackstone and others may go a long way toward keeping young professional crowds in the city, they will not bring investment from major companies. A reliable and efficient public transportation system is, as Amazon’s search has indicated, a major amenity that will attract more labor and firms to our city.
According to a recent article from the Omaha World-Herald, a recent initiative proposes a streetcar line that stretches from the TD Ameritrade ballpark to 42nd Street in the Blackstone district via Farnam. This is an initiative of which all Omahans should be supportive, but the proposed line will not be adequate for all of the needs of the city.
While the Old Market and the stadium are two of the greatest draws for visitors to the city, a line between those locations and 42nd Street is simply not useful enough to justify its construction. The project must be more ambitious. The line must connect other frequented and densely populated areas of the city which, ideally, would bring increased investment to the project.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha would provide an enormous pool of potential transit riders, also enabling a quick and easy method for students to provide their patronage to the museums, services and businesses downtown. Such a line could make stops near Dundee or Benson. Additionally, the establishment of “Park and Ride” stops farther west could help to greatly alleviate the parking situation at the heart of the metro area. Once such a streetcar line shows its value to the city of Omaha, it should be expanded to reach as far as Westroads Mall.
The benefits of a good public transportation infrastructure are not limited to the ability to attract investment and encourage commerce. Studies have shown that public transportation also greatly improves economic mobility. With a larger percentage of Omaha’s population interacting day to day on streetcars, buses or in the metro area due to their reduced reliance on personal automobiles, a famously segregated city such as Omaha may develop a renewed and unified metropolitan culture.
The largest and greatest cities in the world all have one thing in common. From Chicago to Seoul, New York to Bangkok and San Francisco to London, they all have easy to use and comprehensive public transportation systems. If Omahans want to bring economic growth to their city, building a streetcar is imperative. The next time that companies like Amazon are looking for new locations to do business, rather than apply under the mantra, “it’s a long shot, but you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” I want Omahans to be confident that their city is the perfect investment.