Tulsa councilors question city's role in intermodal (land swap) project with TU
BY BRIAN BARBER World Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2012
3/19/12 at 8:23 AM
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City Councilor Blake Ewing is questioning the wisdom of the city's proposed financially lopsided land swap to pursue a possible intermodal facility near the airport when capitalist entities aren't scrambling to invest there.
"If that property is the hen that lays the golden egg, then why are we the only ones interested in it?" Ewing asked last week during a City Council meeting about the potential intermodal project championed by Mayor Dewey Bartlett's administration.
Bartlett has encouraged councilors to approve a land exchange between the city and the University of Tulsa.
The city would gain land from TU near Tulsa International Airport that would directly connect U.S. 169 to two rail lines that have access to the Tulsa Port of Catoosa, making room for a facility where goods could be transferred among highway, rail, water and air modes of transportation.
And TU would gain from the city land near the Gilcrease Museum to develop new research centers that would complement the city-owned museum, which the university oversees.
Some councilors, however, have questioned the proposed swap because the city land near Gilcrease is worth $1.2 million more than the airport land and especially because there's nothing certain about securing the $20 million to actually develop an intermodal facility.
Ewing asked why, if such a facility would mean more business for the rail lines, the port and the airport, they haven't stepped forward to buy the property?
"I'm trying to understand the economics of this," he said. "We are saying as a municipality responsible for taxpayer dollars that we are seeing some writing on the wall that no one else can see.
"We are saying that it will be worth it economically to the community, but these individual for-profit entities have not yet decided for themselves that it's worth it financially.
"We're not talking about a tremendous expense. If I'm a rail company or a port and I think that someday this little piece of property will make me a lot of money, I'm gonna go get it while the getting's good. Right?"
Port of Catoosa Director Bob Portiss, who was talking to councilors about the potential for such a facility, said, "That's one way of looking at the situation."
Councilor Tom Mansur said the same philosophy could have been used before the port was built 40 years ago.
"It wasn't based on economics; it was based on a vision of the future," he said. "I'm not suggesting the government needs to do the financing of every risky endeavor that comes along," but the land swap is a low-dollar risk in the grand scheme of things.
Ewing, a downtown restaurant owner and businessman, said his entire professional career has been based on speculation.
"But I think we have to ask these kinds of questions or we'd be doing a disservice to our constituents," he said.
"Sometimes it's OK to be the only one who wants something because it means you're smarter than everyone else. However, I think it's a pretty bold thing for us to think we're smarter than the people who do this for a living."
If the property is so essential to pursuing the project, the city could simply buy it and not do an unequal land swap, Ewing said.
"We don't have to cram this deal through a hole just because it's convenient."
Portiss said he doesn't know whether the land is right for the railroad marshaling area needed for an intermodal facility.
"None of us has a crystal ball," he said. "We don't know what's going to happen. But it's certainly worthy of consideration."
Councilors also asked Airports Director Jeff Mulder about the involvement of Terry Simonson, the former mayoral chief of staff.
Simonson is a "point person," responsible for helping take the project to the next level in terms of funding and networking with federal and state officials and various interested entities, he said.
Simonson was hired in December on a not-to-exceed $36,000 consulting contract by the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust.
Simonson resigned as Bartlett's chief of staff in September after coming under fire when it was revealed that he made apparent behind-the-scenes efforts to get his son, Ryan Simonson, into the testing cycle for the Tulsa firefighters academy.
After the testing cycle began, Ryan Simonson and his father gained unauthorized access into the fire training facility to practice, emails obtained by the Tulsa World revealed.
Original Print Headline: City's role in project questioned
Brian Barber 918-581-8322
Councilor Blake Ewing: He and others question swapping land with TU before the land's use is a certainty.