Oklahoma City Readies Modern Streetcar as Centerpiece of Major Redevelopment Plan

» Five-to-six mile system would connect downtown redevelopment areas to other inner-city neighborhoods.

Few American cities have as ambitious an urban reconstruction plan as Oklahoma City, which intends not only to reroute the primary highway through town but then also to rebuild the area adjacent to the Oklahoma River, doubling the size of the downtown core. The project, called Core to Shore, is notable in the degree to which it prioritizes the construction of dense, walkable neighborhoods through the use of government funds to spur private investment.

Until late last year, however, it lacked a significant public transportation element, unsurprising since the capital of this Plains state has never had the concentration of employment or housing to make the implementation of major new transit lines truly necessary.

But Republican Mayor Mick Cornett liked the idea of integrating a streetcar into the redevelopment plans, and so he worked to include it in a referendum approved by voters last December, pushing a $130 million public transportation plan towards reality.

Yesterday, Oklahoma City councilors endorsed a partnership with the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments with the goal of determining where exactly the streetcars will run, and how they’ll be integrated into the existing and future transportation system at a new centralized transit hub. It will be the first serious plan for transit improvements in this city in forty years.

The Modern Transit Project has been lobbying for a streetcar system for several years, arguing that it would serve as a useful addition to the transportation offerings downtown and serve as a connector between local bus, intercity bus, and intercity rail offerings, each of which is currently located in different parts of town. The group’s proposal for the roughly six-mile line (sketched out above) would stretch north along two branches from Union Station, where intercity buses converge, to the State Capitol Complex to the northeast and the Oklahoma Heritage Museum to the northeast, passing most of downtown’s major destinations and connecting two hospitals. The eastern branch would include a stop at the Santa Fe station where Amtrak trains call and the western branch would feature a connection to the bus transfer center.

This alignment, however, is just a proposal: the city-chartered partnership will estimate capital and operations costs of potential lines by late this year or early 2011, with final decisions about spending by the city council to be made thereafter.

Mayor Cornett was a major proponent of the MAPS 3 campaign, third in a series of measures designed to garner public support for specific projects through a local regional sales tax that will be in effect for seven years and nine months. MAPS, passed in the early 1990s, resulted in a series of public infrastructure improvements, and MAPS for Kids, passed in 2001, paid for new schools. But the $777 million MAPS 3, which will replace a sports facilities sales tax set to expire at the end of this month (when MAPS 3 collection will begin), was primarily focused on downtown improvements.

In addition to $130 million dedicated to transit (of which $120 100 million would go to the streetcar), $130 million will go to a new central park in the center of the redevelopment area; $280 million to the construction of a new convention center; and several hundred million dollars more to upgrades to sidewalks, trails, the Oklahoma River parkland, the local fairgrounds, and the completion of new senior centers.

The public approved the program by a 54% majority.

Unlike most transit plans, which are developed as stand-alone projects, Oklahoma City’s interest in integrating its streetcar directly into its downtown redevelopment is refreshing. Though one may dispute the value of rebuilding Interstate 40 in a new trench just blocks from its former location (especially since the new right-of-way removes existing rail capacity), the decision by the city to build a broad new boulevard in the place of the old freeway is undoubtedly a good one: it will extend development potential south of downtown and improve the city’s overall walkability.

In addition, the decision by the city to use tax revenue collected now to fund the rail line, rather than bonds to be paid back later, makes the MAPS 3 program significantly more fiscally responsible than most urban transit programs, which typically rely on the accumulation of municipal debt. This decision will ensure that the streetcar does not weigh down on the city’s budget over the next few decades, leaving possibilities open for further transit investments.

The strong electoral endorsement of the streetcar program last December through the MAPS 3 vote certainly can’t hurt, either.

Indeed, the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments is already at work on a light rail plan that would link downtown with Tinker Air Force Base, Edmond, Norman, and other suburban communities. Planning for these lines has only just begun. Oklahoma City’s leaders, of course, also want connections to the nation’s future high-speed rail network, with a goal of eventually connecting the city with Dallas and Kansas City. Of the projects currently being discussed, though, that’s the one that’s furthest off.

33 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Daniel

    Kudos for Oklahoma City! Perhaps this could become a trend in the Sun Belt cities.

  • Nathanael

    Have they managed to redesign the plan so that it doesn’t conflict with the existing state plan for intercity rail from Oklahoma City to Tulsa and/or Wichita yet?

    It shouldn’t be that hard to make them compatible, but….

  • John Bredin

    It’s a bit odd if they’re trying to promote development in the “core to shore” area that the proposed streetcar route doesn’t actually enter the area but swings past it on the wrong side of the proposed expressway reroute.

    Yes, they’re talking about entrenching the highway rather than elevating it, but it would still be *somewhat* of a barrier to pedestrians. (Example: the Kennedy-Dan Ryan just west of downtown Chicago. The wide no-man’s-land is a bit intimidating IMHO, and when I worked in the area, I very rarely crossed the expressway for lunch.)

    It would be better for the streetcar line to go south of the expressway *at least* a block or two into the redevelopment area. I understand the plan is for the line to U-turn at old Union Station as a hub, but the line would still pass Union Station if it U-turned farther south on the other side of the new expressway.

  • Why is the route U-shaped instead of linear?

    • Gabriel Ratener

      With this current proposal it would make little sense to ride this future line from one end to the other. So essentially what seems to be the proposal is two connected lines; Why not? there would be no foreseeable advantage to separating the line into two parts. If however you are suggesting that the line should keep going southerly either to will rogers Airport or to Norman via Moore instead of making a northerly U turn, then I agree, with one exception, I believe a grade separated light rail line would be better than a streetcar for these lines due to their greater lengths (10+miles). Personally I support the current streetcar proposal with the addition of an upside down J shaped Lightrail line with the western terminus at the airport the vertex of the line in downtown OC and the eastern terminus in downtown Norman.

  • Gabriel Ratener

    What happened to the proposed 150 MPH, electrified high speed rail line that was to run between oklahoma city and Tulsa? has this project simply been abandoned due to lack of stimulus funds? if this line where to be built, now would be the time, in accordance with this redevelopment plan, no one wants to remodel downtown OC a second time.

  • Brett

    The high speed rail link will probably be accounted for in the project. Space will be left for that access into Union Station. The only problem is that capacity at union station will probably be somewhat limited.

    • Gabriel Ratener

      Assuming this HSR line is built, it will likely share tracks with slower trains within OC city limits, as with other HSR system around the world, which slow down and share tracks within city limits (such as the TGV entering Paris). with the relocation of I-40 to a current railroad right of way, finding an effective, inexpensive right of way into downtown OC for HSR will be rather difficult, even though future HSR could possibly run adjacent to the new I-40 then turn north into union station. Unfortunately this option would require extra widening of the future I-40 corridor.

      • Nathanael

        Yep, that’s the problem: the I-40 relocation trashes the approach routes from both Ft. Worth and Tulsa to OKC Union Station.

        I suppose a through train from Tulsa-OKC-Ft. Worth could go to the current (Santa Fe) station with new curves north of Main Street to connect to the Tusla lines.

      • NikolasM

        I really think that if any HSR line goes through OKC it will be in a N-S orientation (aka the Santa Fe), from DFW up to Tulsa and a branch to Wichita/KC. The Union Station was built for E-W travel and isn’t on any HSR dream map that I have seen.

  • Fascinating report. All those big shots and hangers-on named above have actually actively pressed or run interference for the absolutely unnecessary destruction of the 8-block-long, twelve-track-wide OKC Union Station rail yard — but now they’re “big rail transit advocates.”

    And aren’t The Emperor’s new clothes particularly lovely today?

    Truth is hard to come by in Oklahoma — especially in Oklahoma City. Worse yet, the local Gen-X-ers and their successors are evidently uniquely afflicted with a sort of political dyslexia/naive materialism that makes them absurdly easy prey for the oil and auto-dealer money that has dominated the state since it destroyed our original electric streetcars and interurbans in the late 1940s. “Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them?” Yep. Bingo. Exactly like that.

    OKC Union Station’s magnificent rail yard was the only hope this state had for development of a comprehensive regional and statewide rail transit system in our lifetimes. Now it is gone — its destruction protected and hastened by the sort of gullible, blank-eyed yip yap seen once again right here.

    “TransportPolitic?” Uh — I dunno — but I’d suggest that any real analysis of the “politics” of transportation, especially in Oklahoma, might need to dig just a little bit deeper than this.

  • Rich

    So we sacrificed space for 12 tracks at Union Station for the I-40 realignment to maybe get a single track? Great planning OKC.

  • Several excellent points have been made in the commentary that have great merit.

    LINEAR SYSTEM
    First, the comments about a linear system are correct. How does one get from the state capital complex and the OU Health Sciences Center to the Oklahoma Heritage Museum or St. Anthony Hospital in this plan? The proposal is not even based upon a circular-multidirectional flow. A system that best approximates a grid is of course the best.

    CORE TO SHORE: WALKING OR DRIVING
    As mentioned, the proposal shows that Core to Shore residents will still be required to cross I-40 to reach the streetcar. The streetcar should run all the way to the Oklahoma River. This brings up another point. What is one solution to use when something is visually obtrusive? You can bury it.

    WHAT CLASSIFIES AS AN EYESORE?
    My how the automobile and 20th Century Modern support structures have fallen, becoming eyesores, blocking the view of glass and steel buildings that replaced beautiful skyscrapers such as the Biltmore Hotel. Few of us outside of San Francisco are old enough to remember a time when streetcars ran at ground level. Mid-to-late 20th Century planners put them underground and called them “subways.” Now the proposal is to put the streetcars in the front of beautiful Union Station because they used the back-yard to bury the expressway. We have been a throwaway society for longer than you might think.

    HIGH SPEED RAIL
    High Speed Rail (HSR) will be delivered in a vastly different manner than it is in Europe, Asia, or Japan. In this region of the country, HSR growth will be incremental. We will have to rebuild what was cast aside between 1940 and 1990. Many passenger trains in this nation ran between 90 mph and 110 mph in the 1930’s. What was it I said about our throwaway society?

    SOCIALIST SOCIETY OR SIMPLE LACK OF VISION
    Those who complain about their taxes being too high and the fact we are becoming a socialist society should consider that all of these infrastructure “replacements” began when the nation found rail as passé. Consider that the Nixon administration created Amtrak as a pall bearer for the nation’s passenger rail industry. Essentially, Nixon and earlier LBJ let the for-profit freight railroads get away with disposing of a marginal segment of their business. First when Mail/Express… then went privately owned passenger railroads. Now our only solution is… GULP! Amtrak. Let’s do it right this time please!

    THE STREET CAR RACES THE BULLETT TRAIN.
    A statement has been made that High Speed Rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa is further off than the Oklahoma City streetcar system. It is my understanding that MAPS 3 first proposes to “study” the prospects of a streetcar system. The race is still in doubt until the studies are complete. We may not have either for at least 20 years.

    Evan Stair

  • Evan Stair is so correct. Just looking at the preliminary sketch should cause concern to any taxpayer expecting to pay for the foibles of the OKC Studs. Amazing to me is that the Penn Square merchants as well as the OKC Zoo, Remington Park and Cowboy Hall are content to help pay for a system that pays zero attention to their existence, while the Western route destination appears to be an obvious bow to the prime OKC Studs ensconced at the “Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum”.

    Good sense would seem to dictate at least a twenty year build-out as a part of the more immediate 5-year plan. Ah, but so it goes as in my lifetime I’ve witnessed the destruction of downtown (Prey Plan), along with the genius’ who thought the tunnels a great idea. Now we witness ANOTHER ill-conceived, half-ass attempt to catch up with the rest of our major cities. When will the ego gallery start thinking about accommodating its own citizens instead of the visitors?

  • “Indeed, the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments is already at work on a light rail plan that would link downtown with Tinker Air Force Base, Edmond, Norman, and other suburban communities. Planning for these lines has only just begun.” So says the article text, above.

    Yes, indeed — now that OKC Union Station’s fabulous rail yard, which already had existing rail connections to the venues noted, plus to Will Rogers World Airport, has been dug up and destroyed by the “debt boys” at ODOT, ACOG is — as usual — “Johnny on the spot” —-20 years too late.

    Make no mistake about it: the OKC Union Station yard was not destroyed by people who did not know what they were doing, and it was no “mistake” that the laughable lapdogs at ACOG ran interference for this mindless destruction with their usual “dumb act.” That “dumb act” is what the folks at ACOG get paid for.

    Did I mention that the 55,000 square-foot terminal building at OKC Union Station was purchased 20 years ago by OKC Metro Transit — using federal transit dollars — for the express purpose of becoming our regional transit center?

    That more public money is now being spent on an ACOG “study for a new rail hub” even before the last public dollar required for the complete destruction of the historic and irreplaceable Union Station rail yard is expended should serve as an obvious opening for the whole matter to be turned over to a federal grand jury.

    • Why does OKC need such a big railyard? Based on any reasonable expected future traffic, it should be able to work with 4-6 tracks. Trains don’t need to sit idle at the station for hours on end collecting dust; they can turn around and earn revenue again within minutes.

  • Rich

    So that’s why we should destroy the whole thing so that we can make we don’t use the wasted space?

    • No, it’s not why you should destroy. But it’s why you shouldn’t preserve if there’s a better use for the land. Every city in America seems to want its own Grand Central; none seems to care that it’s not the steam era anymore. Nowadays trains can run through or turn around quickly, and unless you expect Tokyo’s levels of traffic, your train stations don’t need Tokyo’s platform track count.

  • Every city in America seems to want its own Grand Central?

    It’s not what Oklahoma City “wants.” It’s what Oklahoma City HAD, until the week of 9-11-09 — and has had for 80 years: The last, grand capitol-city rail passenger center in the West remaining unused with all its original train-handling space intact. This included the spectacular Robinson and Walker street underpasses speeding arterial street traffice beneath the broad yard at both ends.

    What group of governments in their right collective minds would have destroyed such an improbable treasure (strangely, serendipitously untouched by the wild-eyed and much-lamented insanity of 1970s “Urban Renewal”) in the post 9-11-01 world? (Answer: Oklahoma governments populated by the comic lapdogs of the most corrupt and corrupting industries in the world.)

    12 yard tracks? Let’s see: Two dedicated tracks for bi-directional handling of electric light rail. Two for regional commuter trains. Two for intercity passenger trains + two for Mail and Express freight handling (the Mail and Express facilities at OKC Union Station were virtually fully intact, including underground tractor-tram tunnels connecting the expansive Express Room and three passenger platforms via fully operational elevators…) Two tracks for bypassing the freight trains of two different freight lines. And two tracks for private equipment, special train handling and utility. All this — if you deign to leave the streetcars on the north side of the terminal building “in the street.”

    That’s “12,” isn’t it.

    “Too many?”

    Not if you already have them — or have the original space, grades and engineering where they once lay.

    But, no — rather than see the value and growth potential in what you already have, you quietly acquiesce to their destruction to make way for four miles of expressway that might have been put nearly anywhere (or dispensed with altogether in favor of common sense and longstanding bypass capacity). After all, you “need” another couple of freeway lanes for the sake of capacity — but you DON’T need the historic rail yard, although yours is perhaps the only capitol metro in the West that has opted out of even rail planning. After all, ODOT says it’s all worth “zero” — unlike the “unfunded highway maintenance liability” that wise and thoughful bureaucracy has racked up over the last 30 years — likely far exceeding $40 billion.

    But now, they all say, we “need a new rail center.”

    What they really “need” — and what Oklahoma needs — is for these thugs to be vigorously prosecuted for clear criminal malfeasance and misuse of the public trust and deliberate vandalism/destruction of irreplaceable historic transportation assets.

    • Um, no. Two tracks for light rail may or may not be part of the mainline station; it depends on how the system sorts itself out whether LRT should run into the station area or not. A city the size of OKC doesn’t even need light rail – it needs good regional rail. This leaves commuter and intercity rail, which can share four tracks.

      Freight doesn’t need to be at the same station as passengers, and in fact shouldn’t. You don’t want people to breathe diesel fumes from idling freight trains. Regional passenger rail can be electrified, in which case the ideal station design would look completely different; freight can, too, but it’s much harder. And if you really think mail sorting and express freight need their own dedicated tracks, right next to passenger space, you need to find your lost time machine and go back to when you came from, in the steam era.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Isn’t the REA office right next to the Harvey House Restaurant. . .

        • Guessing I haven’t had the great fortune to trip over you or your pal hereabouts over the last 20 years as we’ve worked to preserve our railway assets, I’ll just relax and let you tell ME “where the Harvey House is.” It’s always a great pleasure to run into such experts.

          • Adirondacker12800

            You’re the one with the freight fantasies. Putting an express office and the freight house in the middle of downtown made sense in 1890. Why would there need to be significant freight handling in the middle of a 21st Century North American city?

  • The first railway depot including mail and express facility was put out here on this particular part of the then largely empty prairie in 1888, a water stop on the AT&SF near the North Canadian River. It was known simply as “Oklahoma Station.” There was no “downtown,” “uptown,” or “town,” period. That grew up around the depot/mail and express facility, very much the same way business, housing and other development/redevelopment will inevitably center around lines of efficient transport in the future.

    Meanwhile, intercity passenger trains will always require sustaining revenue. No industry ever did a better job of reliably and economically moving mail and express freight than the passenger component of the nation’s commercial railroads. If intercity passenger trains have a future at all in the USA, so will daily, scheduled, rail-borne movement of these specialized, niche-market cargoes. If the US Postal Service has a future, it’s either going to have to successfully argue for significant perpetual subsidy — or change its business model.

    The taxpayers can insist on intelligent reuse of existing assets to lower the costs and other near-term negative effects of redeveloping rail passenger services — or we can allow the highway lobby and its army of co-dependent enablers to continue to do what they have done here in Oklahoma City. If they can’t keep rail development away altogether, their contractor pals will be just as happy forcing us to pay for it twice.

    • Actually, modernized intercity passenger rail lines rarely include freight components, especially niche-market freight. The mixed traffic projects in recent years, for example the Swiss base tunnels, are based on the opposite concept: they allow heavier freight trains, by cutting off steep grades and detours.

      Express mail service is something else – it’s light enough that trains can be built to the same specs as passenger rail, for example TGV La Poste. But the mail sorting facilities are not put in downtown regions, but further out, where there’s less traffic and lower real estate cost. And regardless, TGV La Poste is a tiny niche and Class I freight would not change its business model to accommodate it. The future of US rail freight is not in HSR derivatives, but in better multimodal transportation.

      Adirondacker is right. 2010 isn’t 1888. What worked then may well be daft today.

  • Local passenger rail service potential still needs to be developed regardless of whatever else may be in the planning stage. Oklahoma owns lots of rail right-of-way that can be developed at a reasonable price.
    According to ODOT data the old Frisco rail line between OKC and Tulsa can be upgraded for around $110-115 bringing passenger rail to both OKC and Tulsa in a relatively short period of time. About six million dollars would upgrade the track north from OKC to the Kansas line with eventual service extending to Wichita and Kansas City.
    Perhaps that is too reasonable for the powers that be in Oklahoma to comprehend. The key to this is that for a small amount of hard-to-come-by dollars, we could develop local passenger rail service to much of the state regardless of what happens with high-speed rail. This is service that could be made available in a very short period of time.
    I suggest readers of this give special attention to the comments provided by Tom Elmore and Evan Stair. These two gentlemen have given countless hours of their time trying to get officials to adopt a sensible local serving system of passenger rail for years now. It’s about time people started listening to them. This is quite doable for a few dollars in a short amount of time. Why don’t we just do it?

  • It may be of interest to some to know that the federal District Court of Appeals in DC has now called for oral arguments in the matter of the appeal of the STB’s decision that cleared the way for ODOT’s destruction of OKC Union Station rail yard.

  • Darla Reynolds-Sparks

    It is a pleasure to read the sane and indepth views of Mr. Elmore and others who obviously are not shilling for the robber barons and frauds who perpetrate Oklahoma’s crimes against it’s citizens.

  • As a slightly displaced Oklahoma resident and one time transportation planner and politician I spent several hours talking to various officials in the State Capitol. In the 1990′s I tried to get attention focused on Union Station and the state passenger rail network or rather the lack thereof.

    Restored Amtrak service between KC-Newton-OKC-Dallas etc and or OKC-Tulsa-KC/STL could be greatly enhanced by a state network taking full advantage of the ownership of a massive amount of trackage.

    The humble RDC (Rail Diesel Car) a self propelled coach which can be rebuilt with a small snack-lounge section could easily make Oklahoma the envy of the nation. With a hub out of Union Station in OKC there are the following lines:
    OKC-Chickasha-Lawton-Altus
    OKC-El Reno-Weatherford-Clinton-Elk City
    OKC-Guthrie-Crescent-Enid
    OKC-Shawnee-McAlester-poteau-Ft.Smith

    As well as lines:
    Bartlesville-Tulsa-Muskogee-Ft. Smith
    Enid-Clinton-Altus

    Even with a single car train each way daily, this would be the most comprehensive network in America and much of it on State owned track. As to private operators why not a tax-train system, whereby the railroad would get a “magic number” as a direct tax credit. A credit of say 105% of the total chargeable costs of running the RDC service. The state could take care of promotion, advertising and such through it’s tourism division. Not only would such a network provide a local choice service it would appeal to thousands of railroad tourists around the globe. Early morning and evenings the RDC cars could take care of rush hour commutes in OKC and TULSA as a bonus.

    The railroad passenger opportunity would require track repair on the branchlines, but there is no need for high speed in such a local service. The whole plan would require the Union Stations in OKC and TULA to become functional again, but then rail encourages development. $2 billion in Memphis, $3 billion in Tampa and Portland, and countless billions all along the California network makes one dream of what an economic rocket Oklahoma could become.

    BOB
    http://www.metrojacksonville.com/
    http://jacksonvilletransit.blogspot.com/
    http://www.freewebs.com/lightrailjacksonville/

  • Notable in the diagram at the top of the article here is “no service to the largely Hispanic south town and Capitol Hill areas.

    Lines shown are clearly mainly “tourist lines” laid out in such a way as to keep the fading white majority from having to rub elbows with folks of darker skin.

    This fits very well with the “tradition” of diverting public transit dollars to muddy-river joy-rides for those with time and disposable income to throw away. Yep. OKC’s “riverboats,” though bearing the logos of local big-oil outfits, were purchased in significant part with federal transit dollars on the word of local officials. Real transit users, meanwhile, sit out in the weather at unshielded bus stops — waiting for buses that “may or may not show up today.”

    Meanwhile, a fabulous Union Station facility purchased decades back with a federal transit grant for the purpose of becoming the area’s regional hub is put under ten-lanes of concrete by a state already drowning in $40+ billion of unfunded highway maintenance requirement.

    Perhaps the new motto for OKC should be something like “the closer you look, the uglier it gets…”

    My strong suggestion to out-of-town “analysts” would be — take any transit PR received from OKC’s official government outlets with a shaker or two of salt.

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