Before the city redraws the map of its on-street biking network, it needs to know where cyclists ride now, where they want to, where they feel comfortable -- and where they get stressed.
So the planners and consultants drafting the Lincoln Bike Plan are hoping to hear from cyclists. Lots of cyclists, from all confidence levels.
“It’s incredibly important. It will help serve as the basis for recommendations that we’ll be putting together in the next phase of the plan,” said transportation planner Kellee Van Bruggen. “This will serve as the basis for what we can do to assist in making it easier and safer to bike.”
Lincoln has about 130 miles of paved trails, but this planning process isn’t about trails, Van Bruggen said.
This is about the city’s 140 miles of bike routes on city streets -- designated by green signs -- and the 2.3 miles of bike lanes downtown and the mile-long protected cycle track on N Street.
Van Bruggen and others are trying to determine whether those routes are in the right places, where to add more street access, where unsafe or inconvenient stretches could be made more accommodating.
“The trails serve as the spine of the system, and the on-street is really a supporting role,” she said. “We’re hearing from the public we could do a better job connecting the trails and adding connections to destinations.”
But they want to hear more. So they held an open house last week and talked to nearly 50 cyclists, who used sticky notes to log their thoughts on poster-sized city maps. Nearly 200 have filled out online surveys quizzing them about where they bike, why they bike and why they don’t. And more than 100 have pinpointed their concerns on an online map.
* Like this one, at 14th and Nebraska 2: “Need some type of crossing bridge across 14th and Hwy 2. See people riding or trying to cross to get to work on S. 14th. Very unsafe.”
* And this one, along Northwest 12th: “Probably the second-worst signed on-street bike route in Lincoln, saved from ultimate ignominy only by W. Fletcher. 40 mph traffic, no sidewalks, and we're supposed to ride on this.”
* 56th and Sumner: “Unsafe crossing.”
* 30th and Y: “In winter, snow and ice buildup narrows roads that also serve as bike routes. This makes for potentially dangerous conflict between bikes and cars.”
* South 38th and San Mateo: “This curb cut was removed. Now you have to access the trail from the west, a driveway and a narrow sidewalk, or jump the curb. Not cool …”
Based on a recent study, about 1.6 percent of Lincoln residents commute by bike. Not a bad number compared to other cities, Van Bruggen said, but it could be higher.
And safe on-street cycling is especially important for those who ride to work. The trail system works for recreational rides and across-town trips, but commuters need the streets to make their trips shorter and get where they’re going.
Michaella Kumke could stay on the trails for most of the 10-mile ride from her home near 27th and Nebraska 2 to the Food Bank of Lincoln, north of 48th and Superior. But that’s a circuitous route that takes her out of her way, past the Devaney Center.
So she’s found a quicker route on the street. But it comes with a cost.
Like the heavy, fast-moving traffic on North 44th near Cornhusker. And the narrow, cratered stretch of 48th north of Superior.
“There are some spots where it can be a little rough,” she said.
The city-county planning department and the Metropolitan Planning Organization hired a Denver-based consulting firm to help gather feedback and come up with recommendations. Federal funding paid for 80 percent of the $166,000 contract, Van Bruggen said.
They’ll continue to seek requests and advice from cyclists and others, though the online survey and map will close May 21. After that, they’ll spend the next couple of months assessing what they’ve heard and drafting a new network of bicycle passages.
Their recommendations could include new and redirected bike routes, painted bike lanes, the use of sharrows -- painted arrows to remind cyclists and motorists to share a lane -- and bicycle boulevards, residential streets with low traffic volumes and speeds designed to make cycling a priority.
Once they’ve completed a draft of the new map, they’ll continue to invite and encourage feedback from cyclists of all levels, Van Bruggen said. Because the goal is to get more people feeling more comfortable cycling on the streets.
“There’s a good amount of hardcore cyclists, but there are also people who prefer to use trails. I think those are the target people that we’d like to see more information from: What is it about on-street cycling that makes them feel uncomfortable?”
The planners and consultants hope to finish the plan by the end of the year, and will begin putting it in place based on the availability of funding and the timing of street construction projects, she said.
The statehouse seat of incumbent Laura Ebke is at stake in a five-county district that includes the southwest corner of Lancaster County.
Ebke and two others — Tom Brandt and Al Riskowski — are working to convince residents in District 32 to vote them in to that legislative job.
Ebke, of Crete and the chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, has shown herself in her first term to be a consensus-builder in a sometimes fractious body of lawmakers. She went into the officially nonpartisan Legislature as a Republican but changed her registration to the Libertarian Party after Gov. Pete Ricketts called out state senators who are Republicans by name for not supporting him on some contentious legislative issues.
Ricketts has turned his campaign and financial support in the District 32 race to Riskowski, who farms near Martell, an unincorporated community in southwestern Lancaster County, and who is a former Assemblies of God pastor and was a 16-year director of the Nebraska Family Alliance.
The alliance is a nonprofit family policy council that has most recently supported bills in the Legislature on school choice, regulation of bottle clubs, and elimination of state funds for Planned Parenthood. It opposed bills on fantasy sports gambling and nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Brandt, a fourth-generation farmer from Plymouth in Jefferson County, has been engaged in economic development for his hometown, working to attract businesses and improve the quality of life. He is a registered Republican and identifies himself as a rural Republican and a centrist.
"My main belief is (in) self-responsibility ... leave it up to the local school board. Leave it up to the local town," he said.
High property taxes and school funding are as big an issue in District 32 as the rest of the state.
Thirteen schools are headquartered in the district, Brandt said, and 12 receive no equalized state aid.
"We all send our money up to Lincoln and they give it to 70 schools," Brandt said. "Omaha gets a large chunk of its school district paid for out of that fund."
And the state tells his school district, Tri County, and Wilber-Clatonia, Fairbury, Fillmore Central and others, they don't get anything, he said.
"I don't think that's right. A lot of other people don't either," he said. "Every dollar we'd get back in equalization aid is one less dollar we've got to tax the houses and the farms.
"I think the school funding formula needs to be blown up. ... You ask anybody in 178 school districts and they'll tell you the same thing."
Most of the towns in District 32 are shrinking, he said, but the people are tough, and he's one of them.
There's a lot of frustration, he said, and they want someone like him who will truly represent farmers and small towns in the Legislature.
Brandt says what separates him from the other candidates is his independent thinking and his ability to not be beholden to special-interest groups.
Ebke says her experience of four years in the Legislature separates her from her opponents, in an era of term limits in which 19 of 49 senators have two or fewer years' experience, and an additional eight to 10 will leave after this year.
Ebke, who has a Ph.D. in political science and a deep knowledge of the Constitution, said she was surprised when she came to the Legislature how much she had to learn.
It's beneficial to any district to keep people in the Legislature for as long as possible, she said.
"I feel like this year was probably my best year in terms of being effective," she said.
As a member of a third party, she said, she's been able to reach across party boundaries and pull people together.
That same experience means she has a voting record, which the others don't have, and she had been the target of several negative mailers to her district.
One of them, paid for by the Republican Party, accuses her of being soft on crime, based on her vote in 2015 to repeal the death penalty. She explained her reasons for that vote.
"I don't know that I trust government to make that ultimate decision," she said. "I'm not sure that I trust the system to treat people justly."
Look at the trouble the Department of Correctional Services has had in getting lethal injection drugs, she said. Look at the case of the Beatrice 6, who were convicted of murder and later had those convictions overturned and were released.
But the voters have spoken, she said, and now the goal is to ensure the state is following its own rules in imposing executions.
Riskowski said he has had experience in working with the Legislature while with the Nebraska Family Alliance. But in his campaigning, he's learned about the district.
"Being on the farm here for many years, I thought I had a good handle on the farming end of it, but to have walked the district really gave me a much better overview of what's happening in the businesses in District 32 and what's important to the people," he said.
"I've met a number of farmers even who feel that if commodity prices don't improve, with the high property tax, they're on the verge of having to sell their property," he said.
Another issue is how to stop erosion of people leaving District 32, especially the younger generation, even with so many good jobs available for them, he said.
What separates Riskowski from his opponents, he said, is his strong, consistent, conservative pro-family views.
When people agree on a principle, he said, he has been able to help bring them together on an issue. He worked with senators to bring about reforms on human trafficking, for example.
Riskowski said he would work with senators in that same way to get things done on a wide variety of bills that affect the everyday life of Nebraskans.
According to Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure filings, Riskowski received $5,000 in campaign donations from Ricketts. But he said he's demonstrated in his work with the Nebraska Family Alliance on controversial bills that he has "a mind that will stand strong even under pressure," he said.
"When I feel like I'm working on a particular issue, I'm working on it because I believe in it in principle, not because somebody is pressuring me," he said. "And I'll bring that same attitude with me to the state Capitol."
Two of the three candidates in District 32 will advance from the May 15 primary election to the general election in November.
The city plans to hire 15 new firefighters in the next year if Lincoln receives a federal grant.
The City Council gave its blessing Monday, on a 6-1 vote, to seek a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. Also known as a SAFER grant, it would pay for 75 percent of the costs of the firefighter salaries the first two years and 35 percent of the salary costs the third year.
The city would be responsible for about $428,280 a year in each of the first two years, but eventually would spend about $1.5 million for the 15 additional firefighter salaries.
The city pays about $100,000 a year for salary and benefits for a mid-level firefighter, according to Tom Casady, public safety director.
Councilman Jon Camp, who was the lone no vote, pointed out city administrators had said more firefighters wouldn't be needed for the additional fire stations when the city wanted support for the quarter-cent, three-year sales tax hike to pay for the stations.
Part of that sales tax revenue is being used to build three new fire stations and a combined police/fire station. The four will replace two older stations, which will close, and add two stations to cover growth areas of the city.
Now the fire department wants more firefighters. “I just don’t like to misinform the public,” Camp said.
Casady said he had been careful to say the city didn’t have to have more firefighters to open the two additional stations, but the city would need more firefighters in the future.
The city is just beginning work on building those four stations, which are expected to be done in 2019.
Two years ago, the city turned down a SAFER grant for nine firefighters after several City Council members objected because they had no idea the city had applied for the funding.
“We learned our lesson,” Casady said. This year, the council has been asked to weigh in before the city applies.
Two years ago, some council members said the grant is an example of a structural deficit, because temporary money from the grant is used to pay for items that will be eventually be part of the city's long-term responsibility.
But this year the grant was characterized as an inexpensive way to pay for the first couple years of additional firefighters the city needs to keep up with growth.
The city grows by about 3,500 people — the population of the city O’Neill — and by more than a square mile of land every year, the council was told.
Casady said the city has a good chance to get the SAFER grant.
Fifteen employees are required to staff a fire station — three shifts of four people each shift, plus three people to account for leaves, illness and other issues, Casady said.
Having additional staff will also help reduce overtime until the new stations open, he said.
The fire and police departments ask for more police officers, more firefighters and more apparatus every year in their budget requests to the mayor, said Casady, but a mayor doesn’t always grant the requests.