Intercity bus study

OPEN HOUSE: Ashland resident Shirley Niemeyer talks to Suzanne O’Neill about the proposed intercity bus program the Nebraska Department of Transportation presented during an open house last Thursday at the Ashland Public Library. (Staff Photo by Suzi Nelson)

ASHLAND – Waverly, Greenwood and Ashland could be stops along a bus route between Omaha and Lincoln one day in the not-so-distant future.

At a public open house in Ashland last Thursday, officials discussed a feasibility study for an intercity bus line discussed the project. The Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) started a feasibility study for a bus service between Lincoln and Omaha as part of its Mobility Management Project.

Open houses were also held in Lincoln and Omaha that day and a meeting of stakeholders, including representatives from Waverly and Ashland, was held that morning in Ashland.

The goal of the project is to deliver more efficient mobility options for residents in the area, said Mike Piernicky, vice president of Olsson, the prime contractor for the NDOT on this project.

“(The purpose) is to provide better access to public transportation options to residents across the state,” he said.

The aim is to fill in transportation gaps in a region that will only continue to grow. The three most populous counties in Nebraska – Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster – are predicted to expand from nearly 770,000 residents in 2020 to 1 million by 2050, Piernicky said.

“One of the things that really drove it now is population growth,” he added.

Travel patterns based on the 2017 U.S. Census show that over 23,000 people currently commute between Omaha and Lincoln each day, with 13,540 going from Lincoln to Omaha and 10,177 going from Omaha to Lincoln.

“There’s just a lot of opportunity and a lot of folks would see a need for this service,” Piernicky said.

Fred Fravel, vice president of the transit consultant firm KFH Group in Bethesda, Md., said the project could be completed in a relatively short amount of time.

“It’s a realistic possibility to see this on the road in a couple of years,” he said.

One reason is because funding is available.

“It’s not completely visionary or pie in the sky,” Fravel said.

Funds have been provided through the Federal Transit Administration for rural intercity bus service, Fravel said. There will be no local tax dollars used.

“That’s why we envision no tax increase, because the funds are there,” he said.

The federal funds are intended to support public transportation in rural regions and to connect urban and rural areas, Fravel said. That means connecting smaller villages and cities like Waverly, Greenwood and Ashland to Omaha and Lincoln.

“Of course, Ashland is in that non-urban area between Omaha and Lincoln,” he said.

Ashland Mayor Rick Grauerholz said bus service in or near Ashland would be beneficial to the residents.

“Personally I think it’s something that would help some of our commuters,” he said.

Grauerholz also said the community is also excited about the prospect of a bus that will not only take Ashlanders to the city, but also bring city-dwellers to Ashland.

“I see the potential of people getting on the bus and coming out here to partake of our community,” he said.

The project team is also looking at partnering with other entities like universities.

“I think there are a variety of partnerships that we could be looking at,” said Suzanne O’Neill with TransitPlus, a nation-wide leader in the transit industry.

Several route options have been proposed for the intercity bus program. One option would travel on Interstate 80, but there could be a stop at a park and ride lot in the Ashland area, possibly at Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, Fravel said.

That would only be for the eastbound route (Lincoln to Omaha), because the census figures show about 800 Ashlanders work in Omaha, but only about 300 commute to Lincoln for employment, according to Fravel.

Another option would utilize Highway 6 and may include stops in Waverly, Greenwood and Ashland. Fravel said it would have the same start/stop locations in Lincoln and Omaha as the I-80 routes, but could also have stops in the smaller communities along Highway 6.

The project is also looking at running buses to special events like sporting and entertainment events in Lincoln and Omaha.

“We have heard from a lot of folks that there would be a huge point of demand for service to special events,” Fravel said.

Scheduling was also discussed at the open house. O’Neill offered three frequency options for weekday service, with buses leaving every 30 or 45 minutes during peak hours. The off-peak schedules included buses every hour or just two mid-day trips.

Buses would leave as early as 4:45 a.m. and the final bus of the day would take off at 8:45 p.m., according to the proposed schedules.

The cost estimates for the project range from $3 million for the option with the most service (buses every 30 minutes in peak hours and every 60 minutes the rest of the day) to $1.8 million for the least amount of service (buses every 45 minutes during peak times and two mid-day trips), O’Neill said.

Revenue from fares would generate about $600,000 a year, O’Neill added. They are anticipating commuters will pay $200 for a month pass. Single ride tickets will also be sold.

O’Neill said in order to get people to ride there must be amenities like comfortable seats, available Wi-Fi and charging stations on the buses. The sites where riders would get on and off must also be comfortable and safe, she said.

“It’s important to have good quality service,” she added.

The service would be marketed not only to commuters, but also to people who need to go to Lincoln or Omaha for health care or riders who would like to travel to the large cities for shopping or entertainment.

The project team has reviewed previous studies regarding a Lincoln/Omaha bus route, which has been discussed for at least 30 years, Piernicky said.

“We are making a Nebraska model for mobility and transit options for a mid-sized city,” he added.

Fravel said a bus route doesn’t need to be located in a huge city for it to succeed.

“You don’t have to have New York City for these programs to work,” he said. “We’re talking about cities that are smaller than Omaha.”

The project has looked at successful intercity bus programs in other states. The Bustang program in Colorado is one of the programs being looked at, Fravel said.

The three open houses were conducted to provide public input on the study. Public events were also held last July in Omaha, Lincoln and Greenwood at the beginning of the public engagement phase of the project.

Piernicky said the comments during the first round of public events were overwhelmingly positive.

“Eighty-five percent of the comments said it would be beneficial to support a connection between Lincoln and Omaha,” he said.

A survey of employers in the region was also conducted. After a third round of public meetings in March 2020, the project team will present its recommendations.

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