(Editor’s Note: The following Letter to the Editors refers to Rosemary Meacham-Zittel’s Dec. 16 commentary, An Okie abroad: Oklahoma needs passenger trains. NonDoc runs Letters to the Editors up to about 250 words and reserves the right to edit lightly for style and grammar. To submit a letter for publication, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
As the vice chairman of the legislatively directed Eastern Flyer Passenger Rail Development Task Force in 2012 and Passenger Rail Oklahoma president, I can answer “why” state passenger rail progress is nonexistent. This is by design.
Understand, the Legislature created the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) in 1976 from the Department of Highways. The vision was to express a 21st Century policy beyond highways. Yet, highway officials continue to reject the broader mission. The reason: oil, pavement and construction corporation officials understand big money is at stake.
Consider ODOT’s average annual budget; now $2 billion. Discussions of ‘crumbling roads and bridges’ trump the need for mass transportation, including passenger rail. This is true even with Oklahoma’s growing senior population and millennial desire for alternative transportation.
The story is maddening. The Oklahoma Legislature issued a statutory requirement in 1996 for ODOT to establish a passenger rail route “linking stations in Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties…” (reference Oklahoma Statute 66-323). U.S. Senator Don Nickles secured $23 million through the federal Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 to fund a train. Funding in hand, ODOT established a stub end route between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City in 1999 known as the Heartland Flyer.
Others and I believe ODOT intentionally strangled the service in hopes it would go away. ODOT did not ask for the project, they did not want it and have done everything possible to stifle growth. Why? The ultimate goal is to maintain a roads-only policy, contrary to the agency’s multimodal mission.
Consider last year that the Oklahoma Transportation Commission (OTC) — ODOT’s governing body — sold a 98-mile rail line between Oklahoma City and Sapulpa. This is a line Oklahoma purchased in 1998 to reestablish Tulsa passenger rail service. Simply put, ODOT and the OTC place a high priority on transferring your dollars into the pockets of oil and pavement corporations.
Passenger rail is a proven commodity, as demonstrated by Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) scientists. TTI’s landmark study, “Measuring the Benefits of Intercity Passenger Rail: A Study of the Heartland Flyer Corridor” showed $4 are collected through local traveler spending in Heartland Flyer communities for every $1 of subsidy. This economic amplification translates into positive tax revenue and soothes the present state fiscal crisis.
One cannot save one’s way into prosperity. This is something the present Oklahoma Legislature needs to embrace. It is time for the Legislature to start asking questions. As Rosemary Meacham-Zittel indicates, “Oklahoma needs passenger trains.”
Passenger Rail Oklahoma