While Tulsans await the upcoming opening of the gleaming new BOk Arena and the revitalization of downtown that seems to be just around the next corner, the city is also abuzz with talk about the possibility of a mass transit light rail system as a potential answer to many of T-Town's longstanding transportation issues.
The Indian Nations Council of Governments held a public forum on the subject Thursday night called "What about Rail?" following a six-hour presentation to local business and community leaders.
The venue was downtown's Jazz Hall of Fame at Union Station, which likely wasn't a coincidence. The old station hearkens back to a time before the advent of the automobile or airplane, when traveling usually meant traveling by rail.
The depot was built in 1931 and was a hub for interstate passenger and freight lines until it closed in 1967, as trains gave way to planes and automobiles as preferred modes of transport and travel.
The Union Depot wasn't a center for the kind of rail discussed in recent months for Tulsa, though. As our esteemed columnist Michael Bates wrote in the January 10-16 issue of UTW, in a piece entitled "Should Tulsa Take the Trolley?" (found online at urbantulsa.com), one of the early ancestors to that kind of travel was Tulsa Street Railways, which started in 1907 with routes through downtown along Main St. and Fifth Street.
After that, other light rail companies came along as well, which connected downtown to many of the outlying areas as Tulsa's industries and population grew.
As the internal combustion engine went from fad to convenience to household necessity, though, many of those rail lines gave way to buses before 1955, when they died out completely as Tulsans and Americans fell in love with the flexibility and freedom granted by personally owned automobiles.
Back then, no one had never heard of such animals as "carbon footprints" and "greenhouse emissions," and few could have foreseen the massive undertaking it would become for states and municipalities to build and constantly maintain roads and bridges to accommodate the explosion of car traffic and congestion.
Also, most cities' central business districts weren't built to accommodate the parking demands of so many cars.
And let's not forget the $4-per-gallon gas they weren't paying back then, either.
But, such are the challenges faced by today's city leaders and urban planners, and the subject of light rail frequently comes up as a potential solution.
Last year, a feasibility study by the Metro Tulsa Transit Authority found that commuter train and a bus rapid transit system are both cost-effective options for eliminating about 20 percent of the rush hour traffic between Broken Arrow and downtown Tulsa.
A commuter rail would cost between $43 million and $49 million to build, and about $3 million per year to operate, and would likely see a growth in passengers from 1.4 million in 2010 to 5 million in 2030, the study found.
A rapid transit bus system, on the other hand, would cost about half as much to create, about $2 million to operate each year, but accommodate about 50,000 in 2010, to about 70,000 in 2030.
More recently, though, Dr. Jack Crowley, a special advisor to Mayor Kathy Taylor on urban planning and development, has taken up the cause of implementing light rail in the interest of downtown revitalization.
In a recent interview with UTW, he pitched his proposed plan to build a light rail system through downtown along existing tracks between two city-owned properties at 23rd St. and Jackson Ave. south of downtown, and the Evans-Fintube site just north of Archer St. between Highway 75 and OSU-Tulsa (for more details, see "Much Ado About Downtown" in last week's issue at www.urbantulsa.com).
Crowley guessed that it would cost up to $80 million to build, but the money the city would make back in sales tax revenue from the resultant commercial development along the route would more than make up for it, he estimated.
He reiterated many of those comments at the "What about Rail?" forum last week when he and a handful of other urban planners, city officials, and transportation gurus from other parts of the country presented their ideas for a light rail system connecting downtown Tulsa to all of the outlying suburbs and bedroom communities of the region.
Interestingly, though, during his public comments last week, he said the Mayor had charged him with developing a plan to implement light rail.
That seems to conflict with what he told UTW in last week's interview, in which he said Taylor had simply charged him with "downtown revitalization," and the light rail plan was his own suggestion for how to bring that about.
"This is nothing that has been approved by anybody," he told UTW last week.
There's obviously a big difference between a plan the Mayor already had in mind, which she recruited Crowley to figure out how to implement, and a plan that she's now only taking under advisement.
Crowley did not immediately return phone calls to clear up the confusion.
Cal Marsella, general manager of the Regional Transportation District in Denver, Colo., was another speaker who sang the praises of light rail.
He spoke about the system recently built in his city.
Prior to the creation of Denver's first suburban rail in 2001, he said he heard many of the same objections to the project that he's heard in Tulsa.
"'This is Tulsa and people here love their cars,' people come up and tell me," Marsella related, adding, "I heard the same thing in Denver."
But, despite such naysayers, Denver's initial rail route was "so successful it was an embarrassment," as the parking lot at the suburban station was filled to capacity by 6:30am on its first day of operation, and by "the same people who said it wouldn't work," he said.
It was that parking lot that enabled Denver residents to keep their cars, but avoid many of the drawback of relying exclusively upon them for transportation by driving shorter distances to the rail station than they otherwise would to their daily 9-to-5, thereby preventing traffic congestion, wear and tear on roads, and emissions.
"If you build a better mousetrap, people will beat down your door. This is the better mousetrap," he said.
Marsella said light rail's status as "the better mousetrap" is evident in that he typically only fills the gas tank in his car every four to six weeks.
"I miss price fluctuations sometimes," he said.
For that reason, Marsella explained that a light rail system would increase the amount of sales tax revenue taken in by the city to fund public services. Low-income and lower-middle class people would save money on gas by using it, and would therefore have more disposable income to spend.
That is, if there are enough low-income, middle class or people of other varieties to even use the light rail.
Critics of the plan argue that there isn't enough density in Tulsa to support such an endeavor.
But, Marsella, Crowley and the other speakers took a firm stance on one side of that "chicken or egg?" debate.
Creating a light rail system will in turn attract that population density, they argued.
Marsella said commercial development "blew up overnight" in Denver after the rail system was implemented, and people wanting to live near that development soon followed.
"Growth follows your investments," he said.
Also, Sonya Lopez, principal planner for the city of Austin, Texas, said the creation of transit-oriented development (TOD) districts around her city's transit system has helped to foster that density.
Austin, she said, has six TOD districts situated around rail and three around bus routes.
Crowley argued that not having reliable mass transit actually precludes population density.
"Cars prevent density," he said, by encouraging populations to spread out, but having light rail would encourage people to live near the stations, which would in turn make city services cheaper to provide by enabling more people to be served with less infrastructure for utilities and roads.
"The cost of running a municipality is very inefficient when a city's population is spread out because sewage and water lines are more cost-effective when the population is clustered," said Crowley.
But, of course, light rail systems don't grow on trees, nor does the money it would cost to create them.
"There are taxes. No doubt. There's no free lunch," said Marsella. "But, it's an investment," he added.
The initial high capacity transit corridors proposed in INCOG's 2030 Public Transportation Plan would cost something on the order of about $6 billion to build.
Downtown Tulsa would be the central hub in that network of corridors, which would connect to Collinsville, Claremore, Coweta, Bixby, Sapulpa and Sand Springs.
Crowley, though, previously told UTW that the rail system would start out small--likely just the approximate 3-mile route he's proposed, with other legs added over time, depending on its initial success.
Of course, none of this will happen without the approval of the Tulsa City Council, among other regional leaders.
None of Tulsa's city councilors attended the public forum, since it was held at the same time as the body's weekly meeting at City Hall, but Councilor Rick Westcott attended the six-hour presentation earlier in the day.
"I thought it was very informative," he told UTW.
Westcott was somewhat circumspect about the proposed plan. "We should be very cautious about funding and finding the proper and best way to go about this," he said. "I think, someday, we will need a light rail transit, and now is the time to start planning."
And by "someday," he ventured a tentative guess of about 10-15 years from now.
"It may be a good idea to start doing some planning and maybe put aside money for a short demonstration line," he added.
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