Don't be fooled by the name. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation isn't really about "transportation" -- at least not in the fullest sense of the word.
Rather, it's an agency best described as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the state's well-heeled, politically influential, highway contractors.
This is not an indictment of ODOT's work ... on highways. Nor is it an indictment of outgoing, longtime director Gary Ridley who, by most accounts, did a superb job ... on highways.
But in the 21st century, transportation isn't just cars, trucks, and highways. Or at least it shouldn't be.
It also must involve a serious commitment to passenger rail, especially given painfully high gas prices, climate change, and finite fossil fuels.
Sadly, the state's preoccupation with highways undermined visionary, multi-modal transportation planning in the dozen years Ridley reigned.
Under Ridley, ODOT all-too-often worked to torpedo anything that competed with highways for transportation dollars -- hardly surprising, perhaps, given that Ridley previously was the Oklahoma Asphalt Pavement Association's leader.
Thankfully, there is reason to be optimistic that Oklahoma may be ready to end the highway lobby stranglehold and embrace passenger rail as an essential element in an all-of-the-above transportation and energy strategy.
The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved two measures that -- if passed by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin -- could be game changers.
One, House Bill 2180, would transfer responsibility for rail from ODOT to a new Oklahoma Railways Commission whose members, appointed by the governor, would be "rail experienced and knowledgeable," according to the bill's author, Republican Rep. Charlie Joyner of Midwest City.
The second, Joyner's HB 2187, could put the brakes on a Ridley-ODOT plan to sell a key 97.5-mile stretch of state-owned rail between Sapulpa and Oklahoma City that would be key to creation of a state passenger rail network.
The clock, though, is ticking.
In a January letter to the Kansas-based private company that currently leases the line, Ridley said the state hopes to complete a sale by Sept. 1.
"Since the early 1980s," he wrote, ODOT "purchased strategic, abandoned, or proposed to be abandoned rail lines and properties in our desire to preserve connecting rail networks for the future benefit of Oklahoma."
The time has come, Ridley wrote, to return the so-called "Sooner Sub" to private hands, arguing it "can best benefit the state as part of a private rail network."
Not so fast.
Actually, the sale would best benefit the state's highway contractors, especially if someone like Burlington Northern Santa Fe -- which previously owned the line -- purchased it. Why? Because such ownership would all but guarantee that passenger rail service on the route would be severely restricted.
That's the situation on BNSF's Oklahoma City to Fort Worth line that permits Amtrak's Heartland Flyer makes one round trip each day. One! Hardly the frequency necessary to persuade business travelers to park their cars and ride the rails.
By contrast, Southwest Airlines offers 10 flights daily from Tulsa to Dallas from Tulsa and nine from Oklahoma City.
Limiting passenger rail service, of course, ensures the vast majority of transportation dollars continue to pour into the pockets of highway contractors -- only three percent of ODOT's 2012 budget went to transit, railroads, and waterways.
The proposed sale of the Sooner Sub continues an ODOT pattern of unloading state-owned rail lines in recent years that could have positioned Oklahoma to create an economic development-encouraging passenger rail network linking the state's far-flung regions with the state capital and Tulsa.
As recently as three years ago, ODOT managed 896 miles of lines for the state. The agency now manages 320 miles.
But the potential sale of the nearly 100 mile route between Oklahoma City and Sapulpa -- which runs parallel to the Turner Turnpike -- would be particularly devastating.
If Oklahoma hangs onto the route, and can identify a cost-effective means of establishing the final link into downtown Tulsa, the state's two largest cities and economic centers could be connected like never before.
Imagine business types or lawyers hopping a train in Tulsa first thing in the morning for a quick trip over to Oklahoma City -- or vice versa -- returning just after lunch or in time for dinner.
In a small state like Oklahoma, uniting the two major metro areas and financial centers unleashes enormous economic development potential. Suddenly the two cities don't seem so far apart.
But it won't be easy to build the passenger rail service -- with enough frequency to make it a viable alternative to the automobile -- if the state doesn't own the line, positioning it to demand that passenger service take precedent over freight.
That's why Joyner's HB 2187 is so important. It would set up a "right of first refusal" on the sale of any rail line owned by the state that is being leased to, or operated by, a private company.
On March 11, the House voted 92-0 to approve Joyner's bill, which not coincidentally is co-authored by House Speaker T.W. Shannon.
The unanimous vote suggests most House members either smell a rat in the proposed rail line sale or see the economic development potential of linking Tulsa and Oklahoma City with frequent passenger rail service -- or both.
For the record, the state bought the Sooner Sub from BNSF in 1998 and currently leases it to Pittsburg, Kan.-based South Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad, a WATCO company. The lease between the state and WATCO lasts until Dec. 31, 2017.
Joyner's HB 2180 that would create the Oklahoma Railways Commission shows that lawmakers do, on occasion, learn from history.
A half century ago, at then-Republican Gov. Henry Bellmon's urging, a Democratic legislative majority removed aeronautics from under the highway department, creating what is now known as the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, overseeing and promoting the aerospace and aviation industry.
Aeronautics wasn't even a second fiddle to highways when it was peeled away from ODOT. Now it's one of the state's largest industries. It's not hard to imagine that passenger rail would similarly flourish.
Of course, the highway lobby isn't going away any time soon, meaning its influence (campaign contributions, anyone?) isn't either. Nor is Ridley, who despite retiring as ODOT director will remain as Gov. Mary Fallin's cabinet secretary for transportation.
But that doesn't mean things can't or won't change. Common sense and vision can reshape history. The House has taken the first steps. Will the Senate prove to be as bold and courageous?
Just imagine what Oklahoma could be with a modern passenger rail system that is environmentally, consumer, and business friendly.
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