While in the popular imagination Abraham Lincoln has a legendary image as a log-splitting, small-time country lawyer and mighty orator, he was also a total geek -- he had a feverish interest in cutting-edge technology, novel communications systems and anything that might advance American's fortunes. And in another little known facet of his complex career, he was an unambiguous advocate for U.S. infrastructure and big national projects, even before his ascension to national leadership.
He was a vigorous proponent of rail, waterways and highway works. As historian/writer Tom Wheeler relates in his very cool 2008 book, "Mr. Lincoln and The T-Mails," the dude virtually slept in the telegraph office during the Civil War (the instant-messaging regime for mid 19th century folks) for news from the front and was able, as a consequence, to be actively involved in directing troops -- a revolutionary change in civilian oversight of military forces. Honest Abe is also the only U.S. president to hold a patent -- No. 6469, granted May 22, 1849 -- for a gizmo to lift riverboats over shoals. Odd then, that the 21st century successor's to Lincoln -- the U.S. House of Representatives Repub caucus, is hell bent on whacking two of Lincoln's (and Republican president Eisenhower via his successful effort to birth the Interstate Highway System) singular contributions to American's dynamic.
How We're Tethered
Obviously transportation investments, outlays to maintain our street and highway system, what passes for a transit system in Tulsa, and our exquisite bike trail systems are central to quality of life and economic performance in Tulsa. Just now the $260 billion reauthorization of American transportation bill is part of a grotesque, ideological struggle on Capitol Hill. The House Republican caucus is objecting to the scale, the long-standing character of the legislation (it really helps cash strapped, debt constrained U.S. states and cities), and the funding of things that they simply don't relish like mass transit and our still pathetic efforts to do high-speed rail.
They have also picked the current moment to ask an array of one-dimensional questions about the division between federal and state responsibilities for carrying out transportation funding and construction. The backdrop of their concerns, they claim, is national fiscal distress and federal "overspending".
That is, what some call the "deficit problem" and others see as a simple matter of revenue inadequacy stemming from the hugely irresponsible Bush tax cuts, and our unfunded, mostly improvident, war projects of the last 10 years. As it happens, there is a wonderfully broad Oklahoma/local consensus that supports passing the transport bill in a fashion that doesn't do violence to it's historic role nationally and for Oklahoman's -- Oklahoma U.S. Senator Inhofe is behaving in a very responsible way on this matter -- (if only he could "un-hoax" himself on energy and climate policy). But one-way of thinking about the whole issue -- the numbers: over $650 million for Oklahoma roadways/other transport projects and nearly 45,000 in-state jobs stand in the balance.
There is a longstanding and powerful role that local officials and local dollars play in maintaining and augmenting our transportation system. It's clearly a central obligation of City Hall, one fully consistent with the aspirations of most voters and lots of folks in the region as well. As UTW readers will recall, Tulsans voted in November 2008 to make a hefty investment -- $451.6 million in funding through our third penny sales tax and a general obligation bond issue for streets and related assets.
These two funding buckets produced the largest investment in infrastructure in Tulsa's entire history. That event locally initiated policies that might vastly improve our transit system, re-thinking the role of private investment in these systems and a handful of technological breakouts that we should be thinking about, could deliver a great transport system and one fully consistent with many of the aspirations embodied in PlaniTulsa -- our great new physical planning effort. But we could get waylaid if anticipated federal funding for our interstate systems and other projects disappears or is morphed in highly problematic ways. And crazy uncertainty about future federal help with Tulsa's modest, but essential bus system could be a real killer.
More agile and imaginative transportation planning and a more balanced outlay pallet are also at stake. The thousands of Tulsans who participated in Planitulsa called for a denser, less autocentric Tulsa, going forward.
So, the Washington struggle over national dollars for transport is a special moment for Green Country: It illuminates the need to continue to provide local dollars, talent and real imagination to transport, whatever happens at the federal level. Tulsans have a multiplicity of upcoming opportunities to influence transport policy: The vision 2025 program, the coming renewal of the streets package and the city's general capital improvements programs are all slated for expiration/renewal in the next two years.
Bus 2.0 and The T-Town Future
Re-imaging and fully funding a much better transit system is at the core of what we need to do -- one writer recently described a radical "bus" redo that some Tulsans, via "Fast Forward", our local next stage transit planning effort are thinking about -- Salon's Will Doig, in his early March piece "Its Time To Love The Bus" spells out a compelling option:
"...Making people like the bus when not liking the bus is practically an American pastime essentially means making the bus act and feel more like a train. Trains show up roughly when they're supposed to. Buses take forever, then arrive two at a time. Trains boast better design, speed, shelters, schedules and easier-to-follow routes. When people say they don't like the bus but they do like the train, what they really mean is they like those perks the train offers. But there's no reason bus systems can't simply incorporate most of them. That's the goal of bus rapid transit. Now, whether Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is as good as light rail is the subject of many a blood-spattered brawl between transit geeks, but...let's assume that a pricey new light-rail system isn't an option, but BRT's "train on wheels" experience, with dedicated lanes and pre-board payments, could be. BRT has revolutionized mobility in cities from Bogotá to Guangzhou..."
Bus Rapid Transit is in use or being implemented in a dizzying variety of places, some much larger and more dense than Tulsa, including Houston; Bogotá, Columbia; Jakarta, Indonesia) and some that are about the same size or smaller (Edinburgh, Scotland, Reno, Nev., Salt Lake City, Hartford, Conn. Bus Rapid Transit uses fast headways, semi-dedicated lanes, intelligent routing and an ensemble of small and big bus (CNG & electric) vehicles to make "busing" compelling, and vastly more accessible. When breakout systems, like Bus Rapid Transit, are joined with automated vehicle location software, smart phones and on-call routing, we could launch a transformation unimagined in transit rider ship -- and one that is a grand match for the Tulsa region.
Think About It...
We need federal transport dollars to help make Tulsa all it can be -- folks who say otherwise are simply delusional -- maybe they are time travelers from say 1812, who can't get home...
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