BY C. DAVID KOTOK, WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
"This is more than just a fad," said Gerald Kopiasz, president of Omaha Streetcar, the advocacy group that sponsored a forum Wednesday at the Storz Pavilion at the Nebraska Medical Center.
More than 75 streetcar fans showed up. Many in the crowd were disappointed when they were told that any streetcar system would need a large annual subsidy.
Away from the clamor of the public forum, Mayor Mike Fahey and his staff continue to quietly examine possible funding and economic benefits from laying the tracks and building a streetcar route.
City officials familiar with the serious proposals being analyzed by the City Planning Department didn't participate in the forum. They have been working with Heritage Services, a private nonprofit organization that has raised the money for such major civic projects as the Holland Performing Arts Center, Durham Western Heritage Museum and Joslyn Art Museum.
Heritage Services has underwritten a comprehensive, but private, study of a streetcar system for Omaha. The organization has shared some of the information with Fahey and city planning officials.
Fahey touted the prospect of a streetcar in his state of the city speech in January.
Then silence from Heritage Services and Fahey.
There is no money for a streetcar system in the 2007 budget Fahey proposed and the City Council adopted.
But the idea, which was largely ridiculed when it surfaced in the late 1990s, continues to be pursued.
"It seems reasonable to believe we can make it work," said Paul Landow, the mayor's chief of staff. Fahey is "excited about the project."
City Planning Director Steve Jensen said members of his staff have been asking experts hired by Heritage Services to provide firm estimates on the added economic development that would likely result from a streetcar line.
Those estimates are not available yet, Jensen said.
In interviews, city officials and the head of the vintage streetcar system in Little Rock, Ark., stressed that today's streetcar system has to be measured in terms of economic and tourism impact - not as alternative transportation.
"It's not going to pay for itself out of the fare box," said Keith Jones, executive director of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority. "Breaking even is not the objective."
A 2.5-mile streetcar system tying together attractions in Little Rock and North Little Rock opened in November 2004 at a cost of $20.5 million - 80 percent funded with federal grants, said Jones, who spoke at Wednesday's forum.
In the first year of operation, more than 200,000 people rode the streetcars, which were built by a company based in Ida Grove, Iowa.
The fares covered only about 10 percent of the $540,000 annual operating costs of the Little Rock system.
Success is measured partly by the nearly $180 million in new private and public investments that have been announced in the vicinity of the streetcar line, Jones said.
Landow and Jensen said the administration is examining building a streetcar system in three stages:
• Phase 1 - Creighton University to the Qwest Center Omaha, then looping around the Old Market. The purpose would be to stimulate development of the NoDo district between the Creighton campus and the arena, help attract conventions and link popular attractions.
• Phase 2 - Downtown to the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The route would link two major employment centers and promote the commercial and residential development projected in midtown.
• Phase 3 - Continue west to the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus. This link would tie all three major universities together and to downtown.
"We are still a long way from a final decision," Landow said. "The mayor believes this has the potential to stimulate a lot of development."
Omaha Streetcar does not advocate any particular route, Kopiasz said. The group thinks any route will eventually grow.
Omaha Streetcar brought Jones to Omaha to show that it's not just cities of 1 million or more that have turned to streetcars to move people around downtown. Little Rock perfected low-cost construction methods, Jones said, which kept costs to about $8 million a mile. Some systems, he said, have cost as much as $45 million a mile.