ASHLAND – The details are nearly complete on plans for an intercity bus between Lincoln and Omaha which includes a route that makes stops in Waverly, Greenwood and Ashland.
Last week, representatives from the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) and Olsson, the prime contractor for the project, held meetings with stakeholders and the public in Ashland, Lincoln and Omaha to discuss updates to a study the NDOT started last July as part of its Mobility Management Project to determine if a bus service between Lincoln and Omaha would be feasible.
At the public open house in Ashland on Thursday, Corinne Donahue, senior planner with Olsson, said if funding is secured and bids opened on time, the buses could be running in about 18 months.
“We think fall 2021 is pretty doable,” she said.
That is very soon, considering the length of time the state has been talking about public transportation between its two largest cities. Donahue said the idea has been around since the 1970s.
“It’s exciting to be this close to it,” she said.
The study has analyzed population, cell phone usage and travel patterns between Lincoln and Omaha and determined that over 23,000 people commute daily between the two cities. Employment data included Waverly, Ashland and Greenwood.
Currently there is limited public transportation running in the corridor between Lincoln and Omaha, the study showed. These routes run only once or twice a day and are not designed for commuters.
“We want to supplement their service, not duplicate,” said Donahue.
The planners have drawn up three major routes between Omaha and Lincoln with options for use by residents of Ashland, Greenwood and Waverly.
The proposed routes would make about 14 trips per route back and forth Monday through Friday along Interstate 80. The Red Route (Lincoln to Omaha) would have a park and ride stop at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum near Ashland. The Black Route running from Omaha to Lincoln also includes a park and ride stop at Nebraska Crossing near Gretna.
The proposed Gold Route is a weekday line that travels on Highway 6 and makes stops in Waverly, Greenwood and Ashland. It would run three times per day, going to both Lincoln and Omaha.
“It is designed to serve people between the two cities to allow them to get to Lincoln and Omaha,” said Fred Fravel, vice president of the transit consultant firm KFH Group in Bethesda, Md.
Details for a fourth route that would operate for special events on the weekends are still in the works, because the bus service must meet guidelines in order to receive federal transit funding, according to Fravel.
Funding is the next step in the process, Donahue said. The state has federal funds in reserve that will pay for a large chunk of the $5 million project. A portion of these federal monies must be spent on rural intercity bus services, which Nebraska has not done up until now, said Fravel, so they have built up some cash over the years. There are also state funds that will be used.
“We have over half of it funded, that’s the great news,” Donahue said.
But private funding, to the tune of about $2 million, must also be obtained. Donahue said possible partners could be large employers, universities and foundations located within the area of service.
The planners are still working out exactly where all of the bus stops will be located. Fravel said feedback gathered during the stakeholders and public meetings this time around will be used to finalize the plans.
On the Gold Route, the location of the stop in Ashland could be one of the city-owned parking lots. A final determination has not yet been made, however.
The buses will be operated by a contractor, but the amenities are already planned. Fravel said they will be nothing like commuter buses currently operating within Lincoln and Omaha.
Instead, they will be coaches with amenities like bathrooms, Wi-Fi, charging stations, seat belts and bike racks. All buses will be wheelchair accessible as well.
“It’s a different mode when you think about bus service,” said Fravel.
The accommodations are a way to attract people to the service and were frequently mentioned by the public during earlier meetings, Donahue said. The expectation is for commuters to have the option to work, students to do homework and leisure travelers to have access to electronics during the trip.
“You can work, you can read, you can sleep,” she said.
The feedback provided during the stakeholders and public meetings last week will be collected, along with an online survey that is still open at www.nebraskatransit.com. The survey closes March 17.