A 3.5-mile streetcar line planned for Omaha, Neb., helped convince insurance giant Mutual of Omaha to pursue development of a new headquarters tower in the city's downtown and will also provide service to a new science museum.
The Omaha Streetcar Authority, which held its first meeting on May 16, will oversee design, construction and operation of the line that will run from Cass Street to Farnam Street on South 10th Street, Farnam west to 42nd Street, and back to 10th Street on Harney Street.
Initial design work on the $306-million streetcar line by Omaha-based transportation engineer HDR is underway and is focused on utility coordination, vehicle specifications and the streetcar maintenance facility.
Mutual of Omaha’s decision to move forward with a $600-million downtown headquarters is credited in part to the streetcar line.
“A modern urban transportation system in the form of the planned streetcar line makes this project possible by providing convenient access to our planned headquarters tower and by allowing us to think creatively about many aspects of the project,” Mutual of Omaha chairman and CEO James Blackledge said in a news release.
"We're coming out of the box with a real good start with Mutual of Omaha," said Jay Noddle, president of the streetcar authority.
Construction of the streetcar line is expected to start in 2024 and the first streetcar to begin operation in 2026.
Bob Stubbe, public works director for the City of Omaha, said the line will connect the Riverfront Parks project, a $300 million public-private partnership to revitalize three underutilized downtown parks, and the Kiewit Luminarium, a $100-million science museum, both on the east end of the line. The west end of the line will go to the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Construction of the streetcar line will present some hurdles, said Matt Tondl, senior vice president at HDR, which is preliminary design work on the project.
“Streetcars are essentially a street project with all the of the associated design challenges,” he said. “Utilities are always a key challenge in a downtown environment congested with utilities and often lacking in good as-built records.”
While Nebraska may have a reputation for being flat, Tondl said that doesn’t apply to Omaha.
“Despite what people think about the cities in the plains, Omaha is a hilly city,” Tondl said. “This presents challenges in vehicle design. Construction sequencing is another critical challenge in the congested downtown corridors. Minimizing disruption is a major goal of this project.”
The downtown area where the line would be located has stagnated, according to a strategic plan developed for the area by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
“In fact, since the 1963 Downtown Plan, studies based on census data show that the downtown area lost 21,000 jobs rather than gaining the 12,000 jobs the plan projected,” the study states.
Mayor Jean Stothert expects the streetcar line to generate more jobs and more development.
“Mutual of Omaha’s plan to build a new downtown headquarters is the first example of what is possible and why now is the time [for a streetcar line],” she said.
Mutual is working with architecture firm HOK on a study to assess its space needs and develop a vision of the future workplace. This study will help determine the exact size of the proposed downtown skyscraper, as well as its features and amenities.
In addition to developer Lanoha Real Estate Co., Mutual is working with a design team that includes Kendall/Heaton Associates of Houston, Pickard Chilton of New Haven, Conn., and Omaha’s Alive Engineering.
Mutual has been in its current location at 3300 Dodge Street, about 1.5 miles from the new headquarters site, since 1940. Its home office complex was built in stages from 1940 to about 1980.
“Our plans call for selling our current home office complex to a developer, who will lead the redevelopment effort,” said Jim Nolan, vice president of communications for Mutual of Omaha. “Our current timeline calls for completion of the new headquarters in early 2026, with the redevelopment of our current property to begin in that timeframe.”
The streetcar line will have 13 stops, ten-minute peak frequency and rides will be free. Funding for the line will come from a tax increment financing district, which will allow the city to receive funding as property values within the district increase, and from new projects.
Developers of new projects will give 25% of their TIF proceeds to the city for the streetcar line. Initial construction costs will be covered by bonds.
Other U.S. cities that have developed streetcar lines in recent years include Milwaukee, Kansas City, Mo., and Portland, Ore.