Transportation plans should include passenger rail
BY BOB D. ROUNSAVELL
Saturday, February 16, 2013
2/16/13 at 3:34 AM
Business, not government, is the foundation of our future economic development, and government should support it.
As Terry Simonson, former aide to Mayor Dewey Bartlett suggests, government's primary role of support has evolved into "economic development gardening" with the major focus on growing, nurturing and expanding existing community assets.
But there seems to be a major asset going unnoticed. In the 21st century no economy will grow without a comprehensive transportation plan that includes passenger rail service. Without a transportation segment that includes moving goods and people, economic expansion will not occur at a successful rate.
Mass or public transportation is the key to ensuring continued healthy growth in our state, especially its two largest metropolitan areas.
Tulsa wants to re-energize downtown. For instance, in the Brady Arts District across from the Guthrie Green recently emerged the Griffin Communications Center with its flagship KOTV. Public transit is a sine qua non for downtown residency. People want to move into downtown but need public transit to travel around downtown or elsewhere in greater Tulsa. Although bus expansion is being considered, it is only one component in moving people.
Passenger rail must be a major feature of any future growth plans. Commuter rail is indispensable to the efficient movement of people. Without it, our streets and highways will become more clogged and car emissions, the biggest contributor to air quality, will only continue to pollute. No city can afford to be on EPA's "dirty air" list without impairing its ability to retain or attract business.
Whatever happened to the plans for light rail and a streetcar? Former Mayor Kathy Taylor brought Dr. Jack Crowley, former Oklahoma Department of Transportation director, from the University of Georgia to plan public transit for Tulsa. In his two-year stay, Crowley designed a light rail train route from 23rd Street and Jackson Avenue over that new double-decker inter-modal bridge for which he helped obtain funding. The train would run through downtown to a beautifully designed train station converted from the old Fintube building just east of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa.
His plan also called for a streetcar running up and down Boulder Avenue from the Brady Arts District to Veterans Park - a good start to bringing 21st century public transportation to Tulsa.
Rail is making a comeback throughout the world. One reason for it: About 700 million cars on the planet cannot move a population of 7 billion plus. Too many people for the auto and too much pollution for the planet.
For most of last year I served as a greater Tulsa-area representative on the Eastern Flyer Passenger Rail Development legislative task force. We looked at the possibility of connecting Tulsa with Oklahoma City. This year's legislative session will have several bills introduced to support rail service between the state's two largest cities. One creates public-private partnerships as funding mechanisms.
Perhaps the most significant legislation is HB 2180, which proposes to replace ODOT's Rails Program Division with the Oklahoma Railways Commission separate from ODOT.
Here's what's really intriguing. One private rail operator received an inquiry from the Tulsa Advisory Committee to the Eastern Flyer task force. It responded that it could upgrade the existing track, provide all the rolling stock and run eight daily trains between Tulsa and Oklahoma City and five trips on weekends. With a modest $50 million state appropriation, this operator could have the service up and running within six months of contract signing.
In 13 years, the Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth has become one of the most successful passenger rail services in the country. But it will be eclipsed when the Eastern Flyer is established between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Then all will be saying, "Whatever took us so long?"
Bob D. Rounsavell of Oologah is a retired teacher and president of the Carrie Dickerson Foundation.
Bob D. Rounsavell: "Mass or public transportation is the key to ensuring ... growth ... ."