Driving down the highway, I engage in a sorting and shuffling exercise. I review concerns, irritations, hopes, priorities and projects in order to decide where to put energy and assets. The powers that be in Oklahoma City are doing the same thing ” weighing what to do next with the tax known as MAPS and engaging in a community shuffle and sort.
The arguments for tax extension are many. This tax exists, it has a popular and familiar brand name and the associated projects are successes. It is easier to extend an existing tax than to ask for new taxes. But, there has to be a reason, and the decision of the powers that be to ask, “What shall we do next with this tax?” is not prudent government. Make taxes for needs, not needs for taxes.
There are projects that the public wants. The powers that be asked the public what they wanted and the public said, “trains.” The powers asked themselves and said, “convention hotel.” And now comes the challenge of reconciling conservative principles and public sentiment with the desires of the business community and the realities of Oklahoma City.
The arguments for trains and convention facilities are persuasive. Trains require construction, which creates jobs, and they cut down on traffic and reduce pollution. Trains require years to get some lines active and need ongoing financial support. “MAPS for Tracks” would need to be a permanent tax, much like the nearly 40-year-old MARTA tax in Atlanta.
The argument for a convention center and hotel are also persuasive. World-class convention facilities require upgrade and maintenance, and the Cox Convention Center is not world class. We lack sufficient hotel space in walking distance of convention venues to attract regional and national meetings. Bricktown and the rest of our renewed downtown are wasted if we don’t take the plunge to accommodate visitors who want to come in bulk.
Trains have to go somewhere. Convention cities need easy mass transit. People who travel hate riding buses. Take it from a guy who travels a lot: Buses suck; trains are easy.
The MAPS solution? Integrate metropolitan Oklahoma City around a series of convenient and attractive transportation options that link our airport, our downtown and our best neighborhoods without having to gas up, drive and park. It’ll bring tourism, keep people coming downtown, create jobs and bring permanent residents for at least a few years.
Extend the MAPS tax. Renovate the Cox Convention Center, build a hotel and get an international chain to run it. Run a commuter rail out to the airport and bring it through the redeveloped Interstate 40 corridor. Run another train on existing track on the north-south axis from Edmond to Norman, through downtown. Financially encourage Midwest City to pursue light rail. It is not an either/or question. These two priorities have to be advanced simultaneously for either to work.
So, we should either shoot the moon or quit. I’m a euchre player, and when you shoot the moon you’re betting you can take all the tricks. We have all the cards in our hands.
Gaddie is professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.