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Omaha bike czar's job cut from 2015 city budget

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  • Carlos Morales-display photo

    Omaha bike czar Carlos Morales rides north on 19th Street  from his job in downtown Omaha in this 2011 photo.

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Posted: Wednesday, July 30, 2014 6:47 am

The City of Omaha’s bike czar has been cut from next year’s budget — a move that’s prompting push back from people who champion the growth of bike- and pedestrian-focused projects across the city.

Mayor Jean Stothert said this week that funding for the position, which was created in late 2010 by former Mayor Jim Suttle, has expired. The bicycle-pedestrian coordinator job was funded by the city and a handful of private groups: Alegent Creighton Health, Live Well Omaha and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency.

In a statement released by her office, the mayor did not elaborate on the funding situation but said the city’s Public Works and Planning Departments have “incorporated multi-modal transportation planning into their work within the city’s transportation plan.” She added that she plans to sign an executive order to revive the largely defunct Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which will be renamed the Mayor’s Active Living Advisory Committee.

Bike advocates said they feared the loss of the position would be a step back for a city that spent the last few years adding bike lanes and trails and building a bike share program.

From its start, the bike position has been held by Carlos Morales, a Los Angeles transplant who worked out of the city’s Planning Department. Last year, he was paid an annual salary of $79,641.

During his tenure, the city has completed bike lane projects in the eastern half of the city, including a bike lane on Leavenworth Street between downtown and midtown. Last year, Morales pointed to a growing number of people bringing bikes on city buses as evidence of a growing interest in cycling. Omaha’s bikes-on-buses program began in late 2008 with a few hundred bikes, and by 2012 the annual total was up to 18,000.

Morales declined to comment, as did Planning Director James Thele.

Marty Shukert, a former Omaha planning director who also has served as chairman of the city’s Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said the coordinator position has been key to the expansion of bike-friendly developments.

“I think that the position remains very important and hope that somehow, either by the mayor or by the council, it’s secured,” he said. “If for no other reason than because people moving around under their own power are part of the transportation picture of the city. And there should be a specialization in city government that addresses that form of transportation.”

Shukert noted than many similarly sized cities have such a position.

City Councilman Chris Jerram, who represents the midtown neighborhoods where much of the city’s bike efforts have been focused, said he’s not content to see the position go. As the council examines the budget before its Aug. 12 public hearing, he said he’s trying to sort out a way to put the job back in the budget.

“This is something that at least in (council) District 3 is really important,” he said, “and hopefully something that will be saved.”

Advocates said that if the job has to go, they hope the city will ensure the work continues.

Anne Meysenburg, executive director of the nonprofit Live Well Omaha, said she doesn’t want to see the city lose momentum on big projects, such as a 20-mile trail connection around the eastern side of the city.

“I don’t want people to not feel like this isn’t a blow for our city, because it is,” she said. “Having someone dedicated and providing those services to the community was a huge opportunity overall. But I think as a group we can work together to clearly facilitate the work that needs to be done to make sure those initiatives continue.”

Sarah Johnson, owner of Omaha Bicycle Co. in Benson, said advocates are going into high gear this week to figure out how to save the position and show support for getting the advisory committee back together.

She said several people have been trying to get a meeting with the mayor to discuss re-forming the committee, but haven’t received a definitive response. Whatever the city’s decision, she said people interested in bicycling and pedestrian issues want to know they’ll be kept in the loop.

“It’s about moving people,” she said. “Not cars, not bikes, not pedestrians, but the whole system needs to be integrated. And there need to be options for those people who can’t just jump into their SUV and drive to the mall.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1543, erin.golden@owh.com

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