Like most good jokes, the punch line had an undercurrent of truth.
Tulsa city councilors were hammering out the exact phrasing for a resolution in support of "catalytic projects" and "dependable funding" for transit. The goal, eventually endorsed unanimously by the council, is for transit options to mesh with goals laid out in the city's comprehensive plan, a 2010 document meant to guide land use decisions citywide.
The plan calls for Tulsans to have "a wide variety of transportation choices," including "frequent and reliable bus or rail transit."
On the table in a June 27 committee meeting was a resolution endorsing a variety of transit concepts -- high-frequency bus service, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcars, light rail and commuter rail -- but Councilor G.T. Bynum wanted a bit of wiggle room, suggesting the resolution explicitly support "such possibilities as" those transportation ideas.
"Including such fantasies as?" remarked Councilor Blake Ewing, with those at the table sharing a laugh.
For a while now, big changes to transit have seemed out of reach, despite council members recognizing bus service especially as in need of improvement. Wait times between buses, on average, are 55 minutes, according to information presented last year to the area's Transportation Advisory Board.
Now, however, bus rapid transit seems poised for voter approval. City councilors have penciled in roughly $15 million in funding for such a service along Peoria Avenue, though it's one item on a much larger list of infrastructure projects to be presented in a series of town hall meetings.
A November ballot proposal is likely. Voters would be deciding whether to use public funds to pay for the projects by extending portions of sales tax otherwise set to expire and approving the sale of general obligation bonds.
Bus rapid transit involves having buses pass by stations with a greater frequency along a fixed route. Transportation planners have identified about 17 miles of a north-south route, mostly along Peoria Avenue, as a prime candidate for such a service. The route would extend to E. 38th Street North, then south to E. 81st Street and S. Lewis Avenue.
"This corridor on Peoria contains, when you look a half-mile on either side of it, one in seven of the city's residents and 20 percent of the city's jobs," James Wagner, transportation projects coordinator with the Indian Nations Council of Governments, told city councilors on June 27.
The current plan calls for 19 stops on the route, spaced every half-mile or so, with a bus passing by every 15 minutes during peak hours and every 20 minutes otherwise, seven days a week. Stations and buses would be "distinctly branded," Wagner told the council. Stations might have an art deco theme but definitely would feature canopies and, where needed, sidewalk extensions to connect to existing pedestrian walkways.
While wait times would be reduced along this route, Ewing, in an email, acknowledged that wait times elsewhere in the system won't change much.
"The council added funding to the mayor's proposal from our general fund budget to try to reduce wait times, but until Tulsa makes a substantial investment in public transportation, we'll only be able to knock those average wait times down a little bit at a time," Ewing wrote. "We just have too much city with a very low density."
Bynum, in an interview, explained that the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority had invested in compressed natural gas buses and thus cut their fuel costs by more than $200,000." Mayor Dewey Bartlett then reassigned those funds elsewhere in his yearly budget proposal, but "we felt like that sent a bad message to a department when they find ways to save money, so we reallocated those funds to the MTTA," Bynum said.
In Bynum's view, bus rapid transit reflects a new approach to bus service.
"For years, our focus has been on having a transit system that goes all over town on a highly infrequent basis, and the idea of the bus rapid transit really turns that on its head," he said.
There has been an effort to raise public awareness about the project, including public meetings on the topic last year and in January organized by INCOG. Bynum acknowledged that many may still be unaware about the project. "I'm sure there'll be questions about it," he said.
The cost of the project includes paying for the upgraded bus stops, buses and needed infrastructure upgrades to sidewalks, for example. Wagner said federal funding was considered, but guidelines generally call for a "dedicated guideways" for buses -- not a part of the Tulsa plan.
Wagner said Peoria Avenue traffic is "relatively uncongested." A couple of the most used stops might have a "pullout" for buses to temporarily ease out of traffic, but otherwise the roadway wouldn't be changed.
"We don't really think there'll be much of an impact on traffic," Wagner said, adding that it might be lessened by people taking the bus.
Beyond bus rapid transit, the city council resolution approved on June 27 calls for the creation of task forces to study the appropriate "geographic scope" of transit systems, as well as "the best practices of peer cities" and "the most appropriate sources of funding" for transit.
A draft of the resolution referred to "dedicated" funding, but Bynum successfully lobbied to scrub the final version of that reference. The Transportation Advisory Board, a group that makes recommendations to the council, has been pushing for some sort of dedicated funding source for transit improvements. Bynum, at least, remains opposed to such an idea.
He's staunchly in support of bus rapid transit, however.
"If this ends up being the success that I think we all expect it will be, then that establishes, I think, a real argument for continuing that type of approach," he said.
For Ewing, the goal is to create something that people can plan their lives around.
"My goal is to get certain lines to a very good wait time and to move the system more towards a train philosophy. What I mean is, people who want to be "car free" will know that they need to live and work close to the high-frequency trunk lines (which will, of course, be located where the most people and jobs already are)," Ewing wrote.
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