Sunday, April 5, 2009

All aboard!

Mountains of dirt, heavy road equipment and detoured roads are evidence of continuing work on the realignment of I-40 through downtown Oklahoma City. But the vacant lots between Shields and Walker are eerily quiet, as a war rages in Washington D. C. about whether there’s room for passenger rail in Oklahoma’s future.

Last summer the Surface Transportation Board – successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission – threw out the proposal to abandon the rail yard behind Union Station because of misrepresentations made to the Board. A new petition was filed, and the STB is contemplating whether it should intervene.

Without the current rail yard, Union Station would be virtually useless as a nexus for passenger rail in central Oklahoma. Recreating the station and the rail bed elsewhere would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That means I-40 would be the main access to central Oklahoma for years to come.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual on the Crosstown Expressway. Heavy truck traffic has not been diverted, and continues to pound away at the old concrete. There’s been no effort to reroute any of the 100,000+ vehicles per day, over 95% of which is high-speed through traffic. Locally, ODOT has raised no red flags that the Crosstown is unsafe.

But ODOT is telling the STB something completely different. In a pleading filed January 30, ODOT Director Gary Ridley begged the Board to hurry up and approve the elimination of the rail yard at Union Station so ODOT can proceed with new construction contracts. The Board’s failure to act “is impacting the Department’s ability to insure the future safety of the people who use the current I-40 bridges.”

In his letter, filed through ODOT’s Philadelphia lawyer, Ridley said ODOT must continuously monitor the condition of the existing highway, and that “new serious issues including cracks in fracture critical members are constantly being discovered and repaired.”

Only two months earlier, however, Ridley assured the Oklahoma Transportation Commission that the existing highway would “absolutely” last until 2012. “If we felt there was anything wrong that would cause us concern, we would close it, and we wouldn’t think twice about it.”

Ridley, former executive director of the Oklahoma Asphalt Paving Association, doesn’t want to alarm Oklahoma taxpayers about I-40’s safety under his watch. The ten-lane realignment, after all, was supposed to be completed this year; that obviously hasn’t happened. Delays and cost overruns unrelated to Union Station have already bumped it back at least three years. ODOT’s stumble with the STB won’t help. It was ODOT and its allies, after all, who misrepresented material facts to the STB in the first place.

The real reason for Ridley’s letter may be the change in leadership in Washington. The Obama administration is decidedly more supportive of passenger rail than the previous administration. On March 13, Chairman Doug Buttrey, a Republican and former lobbyist for Federal Express, resigned from the board. President Obama will be appointing his replacement soon, subject to Senate confirmation. President Obama appointed current Board member Francis Mulvey, a Democrat, to succeeded Buttrey as chairman. The term of Charles Nottingham, another Republican, will end December 31. The new STB will likely be more supportive of passenger rail, which is not good news for ODOT’s current posture. It’s no wonder Mr. Ridley wanted the old board to make that decision before the tide turned.

More recently, Mr. Ridley has said it would cost $2 billion to build high-speed rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and therefore it’s unfeasible. But that’s a straw man argument. The state owns over 800 miles of railroad, including a perfectly good track between the stations in downtown Oklahoma City and Tulsa that can support passenger rail with minimal upgrades. There is support for light rail within the metro areas, both locally and in Washington. The key to economic growth is the convenience of transportation. Edmond, Norman, Midwest City, Tinker, Shawnee, Yukon and Oklahoma City would all benefit. What the state lacks is the willpower to make passenger rail a reality.

The test of good government is not how much money you can spend, or how big a highway you can build. The test is how effectively you can provide the common services needed for the economy to run smoothly and the people to prosper. It takes smart, progressive thinking.

ODOT’s club-fisted handling of the I-40 project has at least tripled the projected cost. One wonders if it wouldn’t have been less costly to just run through traffic in a tunnel beneath the new boulevard, saving millions of dollars in land acquisition and construction costs.

ODOT never considered putting I-40 underground, of course, and that’s not a practical alternative today. But it is time for ODOT to leave the Union Station rail yard alone and move ahead with a modified I-40 realignment. Moreover, it’s time for ODOT to start supporting passenger rail transportation in Oklahoma.

The photo shows a Parry Transit light rail car in England, an ideal product for use in urban communities in the United States.


Rich said...

Can't you just see the hypocrisy behind the I-40 realignment?

NateDawg said...

Another conflict of interest you might care to know: the ODOT representative for Oklahoma City/Oklahoma County is none other than Jackie Cooper. That's right "drive with the name you know, Jackie cooper." So, asphalt industry+autmobile dealerships= no wonder we have no reliable public transportation in this state. BACKWARDS.