For the past eight months the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust (TAIT) and the City have been quietly moving forward on an economic development project that has the promise of becoming a large regional hub for transportation and industry. The potential of the project is so significant that during the recent debate in Congress over the passage of the transportation bill, Senator Jim Inhofe and his staff reached out to make sure that what was being contemplated in Tulsa was addressed in the bill.
The project goes by many names: a multimodal transportation facility, an intermodal facility, and in the federal transportation bill it's called an 'aerotropolis transportation system' which means a planned and coordinated multimodal freight or passenger network that provides efficient, cost effective, sustainable, and inter modal connectivity to a defined region of economic significance centered around an airport." This is precisely the project that has been envisioned and recommended by TAIT, PlaniTulsa, ODOT and INCOG.
From the 25,000 foot view in east Tulsa, you see the Tulsa Port of Catoosa, the Tulsa International Airport, two major railroads, and at least four major highways, all within five miles of each other and all transportation assets that are moving freight and commodities. Significantly, in the center of this transportation synergy is over 3,000 acres of largely undeveloped industrially-zoned land owned either by the city or TAIT. Land mass of this size may pose the best, the largest and the last development opportunity within the city limits of Tulsa.
The potential for a large industrial airpark which can be served by road, air, water and rail is significant enough that both railroads have expressed strong support. Rick Webb, CEO of Watco, which owns the short line rail that runs to the port, airport and downtown said: "The proposed location for this facility is ideal for multimodal development, and the addition of new rail infrastructure for the intermodal transportation facility will increase property values and the area's economy by creating new jobs."
Vann Cunningham, Vice President of Economic Development for the BNSF railroad said: "BNSF Railway is interested in providing rail service to the Tulsa Airport Authority and this project is a priority for BNSF."
What makes the location ideal, in addition to the closely located transportation assets, is the benefits that come with the land. The entire area has received an Enterprise Zone designation from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce which makes it qualified to develop a Tax Increment Financing District. It is also ideal for the expansion of Foreign Trade Zone 53 currently at the Port, and it's on former Indian reservation lands, which qualifies it for land credits. There are also natural gas lines on the location and close by are power lines and a power substation owned and operated by the Grand River Dam Authority, which provides reliable and low-cost energy.
There are very successful projects such as this throughout the country. Some of the more dynamic are in Alliance, Texas, Birmingham, Ala., Columbus, Ohio, and Memphis, Tenn. What makes the Tulsa location even more prime is the expected completion in 2014 of the major construction going on at the Panama Canal which will allow larger ships with more cargo to pass through the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi River rather than to travel across country from California by train. It is expected that once the Panama Canal improvements are completed, the opportunities and volume of cargo through the Panama Canal to ports up the Mississippi River will increase, both to and from the middle of the country.
To make this project successful takes a great deal of collaboration with stakeholders. Even a good project can't succeed without it. Over the past six months, a very strong collaborative group has evolved which includes Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley, Secretary of Commerce Dave Lopez, Mayor Dewey Bartlett, County Commission Chairman John Smaligo, Tulsa Chamber Vice President Jim Fram, INCOG Director Rich Brierre, Airport Director Jeff Mulder, Port Director Bob Portiss, TAIT Chairman Charles Sublett and Vice Chair Mary Smith, and the offices of Senator Jim Inhofe and Congressmen John Sullivan and James Lankford.
The expected outcomes from Tulsa's multimodal facility are far reaching. In addition to job creation in both the short and long term, it will enhance the opportunities for the Tulsa International Airport to realize non airline revenue, which can help to lower the costs which ticketed passengers pay to fly from Tulsa. It would allow for the relocation of the short line railroad in downtown Tulsa which would free up land for redevelopment near OSU-Tulsa. And it can provide for an industrial/manufacturing industrial airpark near the airport and the aerospace industries located on land near the airport.
Over the next six months, TAIT and the Tulsa Industrial Authority will have performed feasibility, site and market assessments by nationally recognized transportation, logistics, rail and supply chain experts to lay out the plans and direction for the development of the multimodal facility.
Oftentimes we hear about studies and plans that just collect dust. The saying is: If it lies it dies. That's not the case here. After years of study by state, regional and local planners, this is a project where local leadership said, "Let's make this happen." And it will.
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