Oklahoma City Catholic Worker + Question Internal Combustion + Fall 2002 + Page 3


By Tom Elmore and Robert Waldrop

Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation are making one of the most astoundingly stupid transportation decisions in our city's history. The proposed I-40 Crosstown freeway, besides destroying the Riverside and Walnut Grove neighborhoods, will also kill the effectiveness of Union Station as a transportation center where trains, buses, cars and trucks could meet and exchange cargo and passengers.

The Oklahoma City Union Station is situated at 300 SW 7th. Opening in 1931, the terminal building - with 55,000 square feet on its main floor - is a beautiful California Spanish style structure with many elegant touches such as small courtyards and alcoves with fountains and gardens. The 12 track rail yard is served by subterranean tunnels which brought passengers (as well as mail and express) under the tracks to the surface passenger platforms via a gentle ramp from the grand waiting room. On Hudson and Harvey, street traffic met the trains "at grade" - enabling easy passenger access and seamless exchange of time-sensitive mail and express freight between trucks and trains. Warehouses and material handling areas were (and are) behind the passenger facilities. Traffic on Robinson and Walker flows under the broad rail yard via the magnificent underpasses built as part of the station complex.

Union Station is the absolute center of the state's rail lines. From it, there's direct rail access to Bricktown, the neighborhoods of the near Northeast, north along I-35 to the OKC Schools Warehouse, Oklahoma Railway Museum (which is refurbishing the line for operation), Lincoln Park Golf Course and Zoo/Omniplex/Remington Park area. The city actually owns this line - purchased years ago with a federal grant for development as a transit asset.

From Union Station East, railroad runs near Bricktown, then directly through Midwest City into the North side of Tinker AFB, and then to Choctaw, Harrah, Dale, Shawnee, Seminole, Holdenville, McAlester, on to Howe at the eastern border. This line is largely owned by the state of Oklahoma or Union Pacific Railroad. A second line goes east from Union Station to Tulsa via Jones, Chandler, Stroud, Bristow, Sapulpa. This line is owned by the state.

To the west, the rail line goes directly to the Stockyards, near the May and 29th Street areas and thence along SH152 directly to the Airport Freeway/Meridian intersection at the entry to Will Rogers Airport. There's also an existing rail spur to the Mike Monroney FAA Center. From there the line bears west southwest through Wheatland, Mustang and on to Chickasha, Lawton and Altus (directly through Ft. Sill and with access to Altus AFB). It joins the Houston to Denver Forth Worth and Denver City Railway (now BNSF) at Quanah, Texas.

The Rock Island Line west of Union Station goes along Reno directly to the state fairgrounds, OSU Oklahoma City, I-40 Meridian North area, Lucent Technologies, Yukon, El Reno, Calumet, Weatherford, Clinton/Elk City, Sayre, Erick and Texola. This line is mostly owned by the state. East of Union Station an interchange allows trains from the surface tracks to link to the North-South elevated Heartland Flyer lines linking Ponca City, Perry, Guthrie, Edmond and North OKC and the S. Shields neighborhoods, Moore, Norman, Purcell, Pauls Valley, Davis, Ardmore and Marietta to Gainesville and Ft. Worth Texas with downtown Oklahoma City.

The city and state claim that the Crosstown must be rebuilt and relocated because it is crumbling, but that is merely government propaganda hiding the fact that the project is nothing more than corporate welfare for the trucking and highway construction interests. The existing Crosstown could be redecked for another 30 years' use for about $25 million, or trucks could simply be rerouted onto I-44, I-240, and the turnpikes, all of which have plenty of capacity.

The situation is aggravated by the open lies being told by ODOT and Oklahoma City government, who are claiming that they aren't doing anything to Union Station. "We're just taking out a few railroad tracks and replacing them with a highway." Of course, they mean the terminal building will stand - but would they replace the runways at Will Rogers Airport with freeways and then claim "you still have an airport" because they left the tower and terminal building? That's essentially what's happening at Union Station. Only ONE track will remain - and it will be down in a 15-foot deep trench.

Two cents of the federal tax that all Oklahoma drivers pay on every gallon of gasoline goes directly to the Federal Transit Trust Fund. It buys transit SOMEWHERE - which means that thanks to political leadership like Congressman Ernest Istook, the OKC Council, and ODOT, Oklahoma taxpayers are subsidizing our competition in cities like Salt Lake City and Dalls. Every year we send $28 to $30 million to this fund, we rarely get back more than $5 or 6 million. Congressman Istook managed to get a $13 million allocation for a proposed light rail startup system in Oklahoma City eliminated so the money could be used to build Salt Lake City's new (and very popular) light rail system. Congressman Istook claimed the funds would go to pay off the national debt, which is a lie, as the funds aren't used for debt retirement, they are only used, by law, for mass transit projects.

Contrast the blindness of Oklahoma politicians with the vision of Dallas leaders, who used the surface tracks of existing railway corridors and Dallas' Union Station to develop the service. The first 23.5 miles opened in June 1996. It has gone absolutely crazy since then. It wasn't long before the trains were moving 40,000 riders a day. Attractions along the lines broke attendance records - paying customers at the Dallas Zoo, for instance - situated at the fork in the track where the line South from downtown splits - - TRIPLED in the first year of DART Rail service. By 2000, a survey by an economics professor from the University of North Texas confirmed that the value of commercial property along the tracks in old Dallas had skyrocketed - and that old residential neighborhoods adjacent to the lines were being reborn. DART bus ridership (the buses now often used as connectors to the trains) began to increase - something it hadn't done in recent memory.

In the summer of 2001 - with 5 years of success for the trains - Dallas Transit came back to North Texans with a new bond election. $2.8 billion to "hurry up and get the tracks out to Plano, Richardson and other highways-only suburbs." It passed 3-to-1. Dallas residents have come to seriously appreciate transit and commuter train service.

DART Rail is considered to be a ground-breaking paradigm shift for transit. The idea of using existing rail corridors and old urban train stations is now being copied in nearly every western metropolitan area - except, of course, OKC and Tulsa. Trains are very appealing to middle class folks. They use them - and the buses that connect to them - because they make sense. They're safe, fast and comfortable. People then start to think about "all the time they used to spend with a steering wheel in their hands" and say, "boy, was that ever silly..." The existing OKC rail infrastructure is superior to what Dallas started with, at least, it is until ODOT and Oklahoma City destroy the already in place commuter rail infrastructure at Union Station.

This year, more than 600 people will die on Oklahoma roads. Yet the 160 mph bullet trains of Japan have moved 3 billion passengers since 1964, without one single passenger fatality. Rail is all-weather transportation which is as safe as human beings can conceive. The proven safety record of modern rail passenger service simply cannot be compared to that of roadways.

DART Rail required the destruction of no historic neighborhoods and was constructed without any ethnic cleansing. It was built to a 100 year lifetime standard, with no significant maintenance required for 40 years. Compare this with the standard life of highway pavement of 20 years. Virtually all interstate highway pavements in Oklahoma are today at least 15 years beyond their design lives. There's "no money to fix them - no money to replace them" but there seems always to be money to "build more."

Here's our theory: Just as nuclear fusion power production requires the "controlled splitting of atoms," political power is produced when the taxpayers are separated from their money. The more money - the more power. Politicians don't like highways because "they're cheap" - they like them because they're expensive gifts to people who make large campaign contributions. Very few things have corrupted our governments like the whole business surrounding "modern highways."

A healthy, modern rail commuter rail network in Oklahoma City would probably cost less than the real costs of the I 40 crosstown freeway, and would bring benefits to every neighborhood in the sprawling metro region. It would compliment our investment in our highways, taking wear and tear off of them, extending their lives and lowering maintenance costs. It would lower "mortality and morbidity" associated with transportation in OKC. It would give us a competitive leg up in the world marketplace.

Unfortunately Oklahoma City and state are saddled with incompetent (and perhaps corrupt) leadership who are meeting the new challenges of the 21st century with the failed strategies and politics of the past. The people of Oklahoma City, whose leaders are deliberately destroying an existing commuter railroad infrastructure that could serve the entire metropolitan area for the sake of a few miles of highway, must start to ask serious questions about this before it is too late. No doubt the leaders of Dallas and other regional cities that compete with Oklahoma City are delighted that we are making such a ridiculous decision about our transportation future.