Oklahoma City Streetcar

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.