POSTED ON AUGUST 22, 2012:
Will Wisdom Win?
Tulsa-OKC passenger rail under discussion but in jeopardy
As gas prices spike yet again -- blamed on rising oil futures and refinery problems yet again -- Oklahoma dallies on passenger rail yet again.
The latest bungling involves the legislatively created Eastern Flyer Task Force, charged with studying the feasibility of service between the state's two urban centers, Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
The panel has until Dec. 31 to complete its work, but there appears little reason to believe it will encourage new passenger trains in a state where the highway contractors dominate any discussion of transportation spending.
"We're up against some pretty big players here," says Evan Stair, vice chair of the Eastern Flyer Task Force and a longtime rail proponent.
The fear isn't a couple of daily trains between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The fear is the service would be successful -- and would eat into the already meager budget for transportation needs in a state that routinely appears near the top of lists rating the nation's worst bridges and roads.
What a shame.
Can you imagine hopping onto the train in downtown Tulsa or Oklahoma City, using the on-board Wi-Fi to work all the way, disembarking and walking a block or two to a business meeting -- or to Chesapeake Arena for a Thunder game or to the BOK Center for a concert? Then kicking back for a leisurely ride home?
The success of the state's lone passenger service -- Amtrak's Heartland Flyer, linking the state capital and Fort Worth -- indicates Oklahomans are fully capable of thinking outside the 20th century, Drive the USA in your Chevrolet box.
When Amtrak launched the service more than a decade ago, it projected it would serve 25,000 passengers annually. Instead, nearly three times as many rode the rails the first year -- 71,400. This year the Heartland Flyer is on pace to carry 92,000 passengers.
Moreover, a 2009 Texas Transportation Institute study showed the $3.95 million invested in the Heartland Flyer by the two states yielded $18 million in traveler spending along the route and $1.4 million in local sales taxes.
Alas, the conventional wisdom in politics is that task forces are where good ideas go to die. And there may be no better current example than the Eastern Flyer task force.
It was slow to launch, at least in part because Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman and House Speaker Kris Steele were slow to appoint its members. And once they did, three of the state lawmakers assigned to the task force never showed up for a single meeting and the fourth only attended once. Moreover, both the House members -- state Reps. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, and Charlie Joyner, R-Midwest City -- have now quit the task force.
The task force's approach to analyzing the Eastern Flyer's feasibility has been -- uh -- interesting, to say the least. It is meeting this week with New Mexico officials to review the embattled passenger service between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. But it wasn't until passenger rail advocates protested that the task force agreed to meet with Missouri officials to study the highly successful twice-daily train between Kansas City and St. Louis.
If this were a football or basketball game, you'd get the sense the task force is merely playing out the clock.
Thirty years ago, a Tulsa-Oklahoma City passenger train probably wouldn't have generated much enthusiasm, except among the most devoted railroaders.
Oklahomans weren't about to give up their pickups until their cold dead fingers were pried off the steering wheels. And Tulsa and Oklahoma City might as well have been on different planets.
The capital was still a sleepy cowtown, dependent primarily on government jobs. Tulsa viewed itself as a virtual nation-state, vastly superior to the bumpkins at the other end of the Turner Turnpike.
Now that we're in a global marketplace, the synergy between Tulsa and Oklahoma City is tighter than ever. When you're from a small state like Oklahoma, your two business centers need to work together -- not as competitors -- to be successful.
Some states get it. California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that will kick-off the state's high-speed rail efforts -- authorizing the sale of $4.5 billion in voter-approved bonds to be matched by $3.2 billion in federal start-up funds.
The primary focus will be a San Francisco to Los Angeles bullet train. Construction will put thousands to work. Operation will help reduce the strain on California's highway infrastructure. And it's environmentally friendlier than cars and trucks.
Interestingly, the effort already is attracting the interest of private entrepreneurs and investors who would like to create a San Francisco Bay Area-to-Las Vegas "party" train.
President Obama has promoted the idea of a nationwide high-speed rail network that would be the next generation's equivalent of Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highway system or Abraham Lincoln's transcontinental railroad.
And Oklahoma, as we've discussed before in this column, is uniquely positioned to be a major player if Obama's dream is realized. In 2000, the Federal Railroad Commission 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.
In the late 20th century, the state actually looked at the feasibility of creating a 180-mile-per-hour train between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The price tag -- $880 million -- 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.
The state's transportation powers-that-be (think: highway contractors) were blinded by the potential largesse, so they successfully worked to defeat it, portraying it as a pie-in-the-sky scheme.
The Eastern Flyer task force is charged with studying both conventional and high-speed rail service. But there are signs the task force is preoccupied with high-speed -- a proposition that even some passenger rail advocates consider remote.
What makes more sense, says former Tulsa City Councilor Rick Westcott, is a conventional passenger rail system that would need only about $150 million for rail improvements, rail cars and other equipment.
"We have found tremendous interest in the private sector" in a public-private rail partnership, says Westcott, who chairs the Tulsa Passenger Rail Advisory Committee. In fact, he says, the service -- with four or more daily roundtrips -- could be launched with six months of the state and a private operator signing an agreement.
Towns along the route salivate at the prospect, seeing the huge economic boost created by the Heartland Flyer.
The state owns the 97.5 miles of rail between Oklahoma City and Sapulpa, having purchased it from Burlington Northern Santa Fe in 1997. BNSF owns the line between Sapulpa and Tulsa. So a deal would have to be worked out.
Here's a potential rub: In this era of tight state budgets (thanks to a sluggish overall economy and nearly $1 billion in ill-advised, but politically pleasing tax cuts), Oklahoma is looking at selling surplus properties to generate cash.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility the state could sell the OKC-Sapulpa line, especially if demand increases to transport North Dakota oil tank cars through Tulsa to Stroud where oil could be piped to the refineries in Cushing.
In other words, short-term cash flow could once again trump long-term economic -- and environmental -- considerations.
A helluva way to run a railroad, eh?
The highway contractors and auto manufacturers notwithstanding, passenger rail is going to be an important component in America's efforts to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and reduce pollution.
The Tulsa-Oklahoma City route also could provide a significant boost to rural towns along the route -- as evidenced by the Heartland Flyer's economic impact.
Even if the Eastern Flyer Task Force fails to produce a workable plan for passenger rail between the state's two largest cities, Oklahomans should demand lawmakers produce a solution next session.
And they should threaten lawmakers within an inch of their electoral lives if they even consider selling the Oklahoma City-Sapulpa line.
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