Monday, September 1, 2008

I-40 Plan May Derail

In a remarkable turnabout, a federal agency has thrown a kink in the reconstruction of the I-40 Crosstown Expressway. The decision brings new hope for passenger rail service in Oklahoma, and headaches for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation in the face of soaring costs and dwindling resources.

The federal Surface Transportation Board, which succeeded the Interstate Commerce Commission in its 1995 reorganization, has jurisdiction over the railroad industry in this country, including line abandonments. In January 2007 the board was persuaded that the rail lines in downtown Oklahoma City had been abandoned for more than two years, triggering a federal regulation that allowed the lines to be expeditiously removed and clearing the way for the I-40 rerouting project.

As it turns out, the rail lines had not been abandoned. While construction began on the highway project, Ed Kessler of Norman filed a petition to reopen the abandonment decision. He presented evidence, including photographs, indicating BNSF and Stillwater Central Railroad trains still were using the line to serve businesses in the area.

The federal regulation is pretty cut and dried. If a rail line has been out of service for at least two years, the carrier easily can abandon the line through an expedited procedure. But that process depends on the truthfulness of the information submitted. If the application “contains false or misleading information,” federal regulations require the application to be rejected.

So, based on Kessler’s evidence and some of BNSF’s own admissions, on June 5 the board reopened its January 2007 decision and declared the application void. BNSF can file a new application to abandon the line, but that process will not be an expedited one.

Our national rail policy is “to ensure the development and continuation of a sound rail transportation system,” “to foster sound economic conditions in transportation and to ensure effective competition and coordination between rail carriers and other modes” of transportation, as well as to encourage and promote energy conservation and other goals.

In an application to abandon the Union Station tracks, it seems BNSF would have to convince the board that the integrity of Oklahoma’s statewide rail system “is not necessary” to carry out that transportation policy. It becomes more than a simple question of whether a short rail line actually has been abandoned for a couple of years. That option is no longer on the table.

Oklahomans also should thank Ed Kessler for his persistence. He and a small band of other concerned residents have proven that the system can work, and that powerful interests cannot use “false or misleading information” to frustrate public policy. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen David take on Goliath, but in this case right won over might.

The decision raises new concerns about the massive highway project and the castration of rail service possibilities in Oklahoma. A lot has changed since ODOT decided a 10-lane, 70 mile per hour serpentine raceway was needed through downtown Oklahoma City. Gas prices have soared. The economy has soured. The housing bubble has burst, and the commute from suburbia is no longer as attractive. The nation’s largest independent oil and gas producer wants to build the city’s tallest skyscraper in the heart of downtown, with no means to move 2,000 employees in and out of the urban core.

The public has indicated light rail transit is its No. 1 priority for MAPS III. Oklahoma needs to follow through on its commitment to develop rail transportation before too much time and money are wasted. The Union Station link is the keystone to that system; remove it, and the entire structure collapses.

Union Station was acquired in 1989 with mostly federal funds, expressly to be returned to use as a multimodal transportation center. That promise has not been fulfilled. The state already owns 866 miles of rail from border to border that connect through Union Station. For the most part, it sits idle today. That remarkable system could be the foundation of a model intrastate transportation system that would be the envy of other states and a boon to economic growth throughout Oklahoma for years to come.

Old Will Rogers would have had a field day with the Crosstown Expressway. He once said if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. That’s the dilemma we’re in. The Department of Transportation needs to curb this monstrosity before it gets out of hand, and revise it to spare the Union Station rail yard for Oklahoma’s future growth and prosperity.

- Edmond (OK) Sun, June 13, 2008

No comments: