Is Oklahoma poised to go Back to the Future?
The Legislature approved and the governor recently signed a measure creating a task force to study the wisdom of establishing a new Tulsa-Oklahoma City passenger rail line.
The so-called Eastern Flyer would be an extension of Amtrak's successful Heartland Flyer that operates daily between the state capital and Fort Worth -- where passengers can link to trains that roll into 46 states.
In the throes of economic recession and state and federal budget deficits, the notion of investing in a passenger rail renaissance in Oklahoma might not strike you as a high priority.
But it's actually very smart -- yes, even visionary -- public policy because it would offer Sooners an alternative to traveling in their cars and trucks, meaning fewer vehicles pounding our roads and bridges, burning up gasoline and fouling our air.
Moreover, the state already owns the right-of-way and rail infrastructure to get the trains up and running with only a modest initial investment, perhaps as little as $112 million.
If that's not incentive enough, consider this: The Heartland Flyer is generating about $18 million annually in towns along the route -- money spent on food, lodging and entertainment -- as well as $1.2 million in tax revenue.
As far as Jodi Martin, executive director of the Bristow Area Chamber of Commerce, is concerned, the rail expansion is a no-brainer.
Bristow already benefits from its location on Route 66, annually welcoming thousands of travelers lured by the magic and history of America's Mother Road. And she often hears from Route 66 voyagers that they would love to experience it and the towns along it via rail, sipping on Oklahoma wines and snacking on Oklahoma delicacies as they soak in the countryside.
As Martin put it, "There's definitely an excursion aspect to this."
There's another reason small burgs like Bristow are salivating over the prospect: Many of the rural communities have disproportionately high numbers of senior citizens, many of whom travel regularly to Tulsa and Oklahoma City for health care.
"Many of them don't drive," she says, so the option of climbing aboard the train is often more appealing that rounding up someone to drive them.
Importantly -- at least in today's contentious politics -- the Eastern Flyer task force was a bipartisan creation, shepherded through the Legislature by Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, and Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City.
But that doesn't mean the expanded route is a done deal.
There are powerful forces -- namely the state's deep-pocketed highway contractors -- that are wary about sharing precious state resources with rail. Moreover, the state transportation department often has been little more than a wholly-owned subsidiary of the asphalt mavens.
There is reason, though, to believe that a passenger rail revival could be in the offing. Not only are state transportation officials analyzing the state's high-speed rail potential, but they also are studying the impact of restoring passenger rail service between Oklahoma City north and Newton, Kansas, where passengers could connect with Amtrak trains heading to the east and west coasts.
In addition, towns along both the proposed extensions -- Tulsa-Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City-Newton -- are imploring lawmakers to give their approval.
The Eastern Flyer panel, which could be up-and-running by year's end, is tasked with developing plans to not only return conventional passenger rail service along the Tulsa-Oklahoma City route, but also for high-speed rail through public-private partnerships that could leverage federal and state tax dollars with private investments.
The high-speed component isn't as pie-in-the-sky as it might seem at first blush. After all, President Obama is promoting a $53 billion national high-speed rail network that could be the next generation's equivalent of President Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highway system or President Lincoln's transcontinental railroad.
With its central location, Oklahoma is uniquely positioned to be a major player if Obama's dream is realized. In fact, the Federal Railroad Commission in 2000 included Oklahoma in its South Central Corridor -- one of only 11 designated nationally -- that links Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Little Rock.
More than a decade ago, the state seriously looked at creating a 180-mile-per-hour train between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The price tag was $880 million -- but it was do-able by matching $800 million in federal transportation monies with a 10-year, 1-cent increase in the gasoline sales tax that would generate $200 million.
Even though the study suggested a "staggering" boost for local economies along the route, supporters could not persuade the state's powers-that-be to buy into the futuristic transportation vision.
Imagine now how transformative that project would have been. Tulsans could hop on a bullet train and be in downtown Oklahoma City in a half-hour, able to stroll the Bricktown canal or attend a Thunder NBA game. Oklahoma City residents could more easily take advantage of special shows at the BOK Center or the Brady Theater or the Gilcrease Museum's latest exhibition.
The 17-member Eastern Flyer task force is the first step toward ushering in a new, old, bold era in transportation. What will it do? And will our state's leaders come to realize the wisdom of expanding our transportation options? Stay tuned. This will be very interesting.
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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