America is in the middle of a streetcar boom. The billionaire would prefer that his hometown not get onboard.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Omaha, city leaders and the most famous local resident are disagreeing, courteously, over a plan to bring back streetcars.
Jan. 21, 2023
OMAHA — The letter to the editor of The Omaha World-Herald began politely, Midwesternly.
“I seldom take sides on local issues,” wrote Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and Omaha’s most famous resident, in a letter in December. “Understandably, it can be off-putting to many to have a wealthy 92-year-old tell them what is good for their future.
“I’m going to make an exception on the streetcar issue.”
That is the $306 million plan to build a system of streetcars throughout the heart of Omaha, a sweeping project that was discussed for decades and is finally expected to break ground next year. Mr. Buffett argued that the streetcar is too expensive, too inflexible, with decisions “literally cast in cement,” and concluded by saying that Omahans deserve a vote on the matter.
“If granted, I will vote ‘no,’” he wrote.
His voice was a lonely one: America is in the midst of a streetcar boom. In the last decade, streetcar systems have sprung up in Kansas City, Mo., Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Atlanta, among other cities, and more communities are eyeing the possibility of implementing them. In Omaha, the project was discussed at open community meetings and sailed through the City Council in December with a 6-1 vote to approve the city’s sale of bonds required to finance it.
Municipal leaders across the country have been enticed in recent years by the electric streetcar, a mode of transportation that was generally phased out in the mid-20th century to make way for cars and buses. Omaha’s streetcar system was once one of the largest in the country, second only to Boston’s.
“That whole period from 1950 to 1970 was a period of destroying our rail systems,” said Rick Gustafson, a transportation consultant who has worked on streetcar projects across the country, including in Omaha. “Recovering from it is absurdly expensive. Now we’re all looking at corridors and trying to improve them.”
Unlike light-rail systems that tend to reach far into the suburbs for commuters, streetcars are a more local public transit option that are limited in scope, often looping for only several miles through city centers, with short distances between stops and, frequently, free fares. The streetcar, as the theory goes, is a vehicle to jump-start development — with the idea that where track is laid for a streetcar, office buildings, restaurants, sports attractions and condos will follow.
And yet Mr. Buffett’s letter set off some lingering debate about the streetcar in Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city with a population just under 500,000.
“There’s no doubt people listen to Warren Buffett. I listen to Warren Buffett,” the mayor, Jean Stothert, said in an interview. “He’s a very smart, wise man. But on this issue, he’s just looking at it differently than we are.” (Mr. Buffett did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ms. Stothert and other city officials say this is the right moment for the streetcar, despite the criticism. While Omaha has a strong sense of civic pride and sees itself as a capital of the Plains, it is still competing for younger, college-educated workers who prefer a bigger, more glitzy city like Chicago. Perhaps a streetcar line, the thinking goes, could add a touch of modernity and urban panache to the Omaha lifestyle and brand.
“What are the young professionals looking for?” Ms. Stothert said. “Urban living, affordable housing, public transportation, entertainment. That’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to rebuild the downtown area to have all those amenities that the younger professional talent is looking for.”
When I spent two days last week wandering around Omaha, a city I had not visited since before the pandemic, the downtown seemed a little newer, sparklier than before, even under gray January skies. There was a colorful mall-like park with a playground, performance pavilion and dog run, all features that opened to great fanfare last year.
But it was still the downtown Omaha I remembered, something of a modern urban planner’s nightmare. Wide, one-way streets with several lanes of speeding drivers that are daunting to pedestrians. Large surface parking lots all over the place. The center of the city has sports venues, museums, restaurants and hotels, but most of them are too far away from one another to walk comfortably.
In the Midtown neighborhood near downtown, Rebecca Boylan, whose frame shop has been on Farnam Street for 27 years, said she had mixed feelings about the streetcar plans.
She likes the idea of modernizing downtown and luring more tourists there. But she is concerned that her taxes will go up, since her store is situated right on the streetcar line. The pictures of streetcar designs she had seen looked a little goofy, she thought, like the pseudo-futuristic pods in “Sleeper,” the Woody Allen film from 1973.
Mostly, she doubted that Omahans would embrace the notion of hopping on a streetcar to get from one neighborhood to the next, a foreign concept in this sprawling, car-centric city with an extremely suburban feel.
“You can’t separate people from their cars here,” Ms. Boylan said.
Ashton Vampola, the manager at Corky Boards, an event space and painting studio, said she was thrilled by the idea. The downtown area is far from inviting, she said, and when people visit the center of the city, they tend to choose a spot and stay there rather than walk around.
“People are so stuck in their ways, but this could change it,” she said. “If we had something like this, it could change the vibe of the city.”
Jay Noddle, the president of the Omaha Streetcar Authority, said that even before it is built, the streetcar is spurring development: Mutual of Omaha, the insurance giant, is about to break ground on a new headquarters tower on the streetcar line. Based on studies that the streetcar authority has commissioned while it was researching the project, Mr. Noddle expects that the streetcar will pay for itself with certain taxes from new development along the streetcar route. “People in the urban core have been asking for this kind of thing for a long time,” he said.
After Mr. Buffett’s letter was published, the mayor, Ms. Stothert, quickly met with him at his office, she said, where they had a friendly chat about his objections to the streetcar. He shared his point of view and she explained why she supported the project, she said. Minds were not changed.
Despite Mr. Buffett’s plea, no citywide referendum is expected.
“I think it’s a citizen expressing an opinion,” Mr. Noddle said. “I don’t view it as any more than that.”