In Omaha, a Streetcar Named Undesirable by Warren Buffett

America is in the midst of a streetcar growth. The billionaire would favor that his hometown not get onboard.


We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Omaha, metropolis leaders and probably the most well-known native resident are disagreeing, courteously, over a plan to carry again streetcars.

OMAHA — The letter to the editor of The Omaha World-Herald started politely, Midwesternly.

“I seldom take sides on native points,” wrote Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and Omaha’s most well-known resident, in a letter in December. “Understandably, it may be off-putting to many to have a rich 92-year-old inform them what is sweet for his or her future.

“I’m going to make an exception on the streetcar concern.”

That’s the $306 million plan to construct a system of streetcars all through the center of Omaha, a sweeping venture that was mentioned for many years and is lastly anticipated to interrupt floor subsequent yr. Mr. Buffett argued that the streetcar is simply too costly, too rigid, with choices “actually forged in cement,” and concluded by saying that Omahans deserve a vote on the matter.

“If granted, I’ll vote ‘no,’” he wrote.

His voice was a lonely one: America is within the midst of a streetcar growth. Within the final decade, streetcar methods have sprung up in Kansas Metropolis, Mo., Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Atlanta, amongst different cities, and extra communities are eyeing the opportunity of implementing them. In Omaha, the venture was mentioned at open neighborhood conferences and sailed by means of the Metropolis Council in December with a 6-1 vote to approve the town’s sale of bonds required to finance it.

Municipal leaders throughout the nation have been enticed in recent times by the electrical streetcar, a mode of transportation that was typically phased out within the mid-Twentieth century to make means for vehicles and buses. Omaha’s streetcar system was as soon as one of many largest within the nation, second solely to Boston’s.

“That entire interval from 1950 to 1970 was a interval of destroying our rail methods,” mentioned Rick Gustafson, a transportation advisor who has labored on streetcar initiatives throughout the nation, together with in Omaha. “Recovering from it’s absurdly costly. Now we’re all corridors and attempting to enhance them.”

Not like light-rail methods that have a tendency to succeed in far into the suburbs for commuters, streetcars are a extra native public transit choice which are restricted in scope, usually looping for under a number of miles by means of metropolis facilities, with quick distances between stops and, continuously, free fares. The streetcar, as the idea goes, is a automobile to jump-start growth — with the concept that the place monitor is laid for a streetcar, workplace buildings, eating places, sports activities sights and condos will comply with.

And but Mr. Buffett’s letter set off some lingering debate concerning the streetcar in Omaha, Nebraska’s largest metropolis with a inhabitants just below 500,000.

“There’s little question folks hearken to Warren Buffett. I hearken to Warren Buffett,” the mayor, Jean Stothert, mentioned in an interview. “He’s a really good, sensible man. However on this concern, he’s simply it in a different way than we’re.” (Mr. Buffett didn’t reply to requests for remark.)

Ms. Stothert and different metropolis officers say that is the suitable second for the streetcar, regardless of the criticism. Whereas Omaha has a robust sense of civic delight and sees itself as a capital of the Plains, it’s nonetheless competing for youthful, college-educated employees preferring a much bigger, extra glitzy metropolis like Chicago. Maybe a streetcar line, the considering goes, might add a contact of modernity and concrete panache to the Omaha life-style and model.

“What are the younger professionals searching for?” Ms. Stothert mentioned. “City dwelling, inexpensive housing, public transportation, leisure. That’s what we’re doing. We’re attempting to rebuild the downtown space to have all these facilities that the youthful skilled expertise is searching for.”

Once I spent two days final week wandering round Omaha, a metropolis I had not visited since earlier than the pandemic, the downtown appeared a bit newer, sparklier than earlier than, even beneath grey January skies. There was a colourful mall-like park with a playground, efficiency pavilion and canine run, all options that opened to nice fanfare final yr.

However it was nonetheless the downtown Omaha I remembered, one thing of a contemporary city planner’s nightmare. Vast, one-way streets with a number of lanes of dashing drivers which are formidable to pedestrians. Massive floor parking tons in all places. The middle of the town has sports activities venues, museums, eating places and lodges, however most of them are too far-off from each other to stroll comfortably.

Within the Midtown neighborhood close to downtown, Rebecca Boylan, whose body store has been on Farnam Road for 27 years, mentioned she had combined emotions concerning the streetcar plans.

She likes the concept of modernizing downtown and luring extra vacationers there. However she is anxious that her taxes will go up, since her retailer is located proper on the streetcar line. The images of streetcar designs she had seen regarded a bit goofy, she thought, just like the pseudo-futuristic pods in “Sleeper,” the Woody Allen movie from 1973.

Largely, she doubted that Omahans would embrace the notion of hopping on a streetcar to get from one neighborhood to the subsequent, a international idea on this sprawling, car-centric metropolis with an especially suburban really feel.

“You’ll be able to’t separate folks from their vehicles right here,” Ms. Boylan mentioned.

Ashton Vampola, the supervisor at Corky Boards, an occasion area and portray studio, mentioned she was thrilled by the concept. The downtown space is much from inviting, she mentioned, and when folks go to the middle of the town, they have an inclination to decide on a spot and keep there reasonably than stroll round.

“Persons are so caught of their methods, however this might change it,” she mentioned. “If we had one thing like this, it might change the vibe of the town.”

Jay Noddle, the president of the Omaha Streetcar Authority, mentioned that even earlier than it’s constructed, the streetcar is spurring growth: Mutual of Omaha, the insurance coverage large, is about to interrupt floor on a brand new headquarters tower on the streetcar line. Based mostly on research that the streetcar authority has commissioned whereas it was researching the venture, Mr. Noddle expects that the streetcar can pay for itself with sure taxes from new growth alongside the streetcar route. “Folks within the city core have been asking for this sort of factor for a very long time,” he mentioned.

After Mr. Buffett’s letter was printed, the mayor, Ms. Stothert, shortly met with him at his workplace, she mentioned, the place that they had a pleasant chat about his objections to the streetcar. He shared his perspective and he or she defined why she supported the venture, she mentioned. Minds weren’t modified.

Regardless of Mr. Buffett’s plea, no citywide referendum is anticipated.

“I believe it’s a citizen expressing an opinion,” Mr. Noddle mentioned. “I don’t view it as any greater than that.”