How We Move: Oklahoma looks at public transit

Published 9 years ago - 6


by Callie Campbell

[audio:KrisGlenn.mp3]

VOICES EXTRA: Hear a short interview with CART’s Kris Glenn about mass transit in Norman.

Norman bus driver Larry Bowen said he has seen a large increase in riders in his 5 1/2 years on the job. Photo by Callie Campbell.
Norman bus driver Larry Bowen said he has seen a large increase in riders in his 5 1/2 years on the job. Photo by Callie Campbell.

Oklahoma is one of the most car-dependent states in the U.S. In times of prosperity fueled by a booming oil and gas industry, we built highways, bought cars, and neglected mass transit. Last year, Tulsa and Oklahoma City were ranked dead last in public transit use out of the 50 largest American cities.

Now a combination of rising gas prices, environmental concerns, and the financial crisis are causing Oklahomans to give public transportation another look. But while many in Norman and Oklahoma City are working to improve transit, other plans by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation threaten to destroy some of our most valuable rail infrastructure.

The federal stimulus bill set aside a certain amount for each state to enhance public transportation systems, according to Recovery.gov. In Oklahoma, $39.2 million of the $542.9 million going to transportation has been allocated for public transit.

Stimulus funds for public transportation were divided into three pools of money, said Cody Ponder, grants specialist and planner for Cleveland Area Rapid Transit (CART), which runs Norman’s bus system. Oklahoma City and Tulsa received the largest sum, Norman and Lawton received a share, and then the rural towns received the rest. Ponder said that Norman was given $1.8 million.

The money will be used to purchase five new compressed natural gas buses, according to Ponder. These will bring Norman’s total to eight CNG buses, which are safer for the environment, said CART marketing and public relations representative Kris Glenn.

CART transports roughly one million passengers a year, and the number has been increasing every year. The new buses will help the city handle rising demand.

“Last year we saw a significant climb in commuters taking the bus,” Glenn said.

Currently CART offers three bus routes that serve the OU campus, five that serve the greater Norman area, one route that travels between Oklahoma City and Norman, and a rural route that travels to Noble, Lexington and Little Axe.

CART’s long-term plan is to expand with more frequent buses traveling linear routes down major thoroughfares. Riders would be able to cross Norman in 15 minutes, going more directly to their destination than with the current loop routes.

Buses to Trains

While buses are serving transportation needs within Norman, transportation planners and activists are looking at trains to reach Oklahoma City and other places around the state. Last week in a meeting with metro area mayors and city managers, ODOT Director Gary Ridley presented a passenger rail package that would connect Norman, Oklahoma City, Edmond, and Tinker Air Force Base.

ODOT’s proposal is to build new dedicated passenger rail tracks between Norman and Edmond, going through the Santa Fe Depot in Oklahoma City. Another line to Tinker AFB would run partially on new track and partially on rehabilitated existing track. Funding for the estimated $226 million project would be dependent on winning a competitive grant offered through the Federal Stimulus Bill.

ODOT and OKC Mayor Mick Cornett are pushing the OKC Santa Fe Depot as the center of rail development. However, a growing number of citizens and surrounding cities have called for restoring the OKC Union Station as a rail hub. Though Union Station has not served passenger trains since 1967, it has a larger railyard, more connections to existing lines, and more convenient track access.

Union Station in Oklahoma City. Photo by Sarah Warmker.
Union Station in Oklahoma City. Photo by Sarah Warmker.

Union Station was formerly the transit hub for all Oklahoma, and advocates for the station argue that it is the only feasible site that can meet all the state’s transit needs, short of building an expensive new station from scratch, because it has space for many different modes of transportation to intersect.

According to the civil engineering firm Jacobs Carter Burgess, “Today’s intermodal stations provide a nexus for multiple means of moving people. They combine light and commuter rail, local and intercity bus service, shuttle vans and taxis, and-where space permits-parking for personal vehicles within a single facility.”

Today the railyard is in danger of being destroyed by the I-40 Crosstown Expressway relocation. In September, the Norman City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for Governor Brad Henry to look at alternate routes for the Crosstown. Similar resolutions have been passed in Lawton, El Reno, Shawnee, and Chickasha.

The Oklahomans for New Rail Alternatives Coalition (OnTrac), a group of local rail advocates, has developed an engineering plan showing that the railyard can be saved by moving the highway 40 yards south, onto a fraction of the land already set aside by ODOT as a highway buffer.

“OnTrac just wants to save the rail station,” said Tom Kovach, a Norman city councilmember and the public relations representative for OnTrac. “We are not opposed to the I-40 Crosstown development. Having a railway will help that development.”

He said the Union Station railyard would be very costly for taxpayers to replace.

Benefits of Rail

Kovach believes that a passenger rail system would help the economy by spurring development where the train stops and giving shoppers and workers greater freedom to travel. He said that in Dallas, tax revenues from new development near train stops has more than paid for the rail.

“A commuter rail could also help students that travel to the OU Healthplex in Oklahoma City, or people who would like to go to Bricktown and drink, but don’t want to worry about driving themselves home if they’ve been drinking,” he said.

Commuter rail can also improve air quality by reducing emissions from cars.

According to the resolution by the Norman City Council, “Central Oklahoma exceeded the maximum allowed ozone layer 11 times [in 2006], almost twice as many times as the previous four years combined, and before the new federal standards of the Clean Air Act became law.”

Kovach said that if Oklahoma City violates the Clean Air Act, “it could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the long run to meet EPA standards.”

He said he does not believe any of the stimulus funds for public transportation were allotted for commuter or passenger rails in Oklahoma City. ODOT spokesman David Meuser said all of the funds for public transportation were given to city-run organizations to be handled, and are not overseen by ODOT. Meuser said funds for Norman are being handled by CART.

When asked whether CART supports bringing commuter rail to Norman, Glenn said, “CART supports all modes of public transit, but we need it to be multimodal, meaning we need an enhanced bus system in Norman and Oklahoma City so people can get where they need to go after their train stop. Right now the bus system cannot accommodate the type of passengers that would ride the rail in both cities.”

Kovach hopes to someday get a rail system similar to the one in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It makes transportation easier and it accommodates buses,” he said.

According to Kovach, momentum is the biggest hindrance to preserving the railyard. “This is what [ODOT] has been planning for ten years,” he said. “It is hard for them to stop and change gears.”

People interested in supporting OnTrac can start by signing the petition to keep the Union Station railyard, or by contacting the OKC mayor and city council.

“One of the most important parts of our job is to involve the public, we would love to hear from anybody with an interest in this,” said Kris Glenn of CART Services. Learn more about CART at www.ridecart.com or by calling 405-325-7490.

Callie Campbell is a freelance writer, editor and environmentalist in Norman, Oklahoma. You can read her blog on environmental issues at www.jollygreenblogger.com.