Streetcar still on track

An AmeriTram streetcar featuring overhead wires. (Submitted)

An AmeriTram streetcar featuring overhead wires. (Submitted)

City officials and members of the streetcar subcommittee believe the project to build a downtown streetcar remains on track for a late 2017 completion, even though state and city law, along with some confusion over wires, set the project back a few months.

“I think there was some misunderstanding,” said Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS 3) director David Todd. “We were never advocating to try and go completely off-wire. We just wanted to see what we can get.”

In an April meeting of the streetcar subcommittee, engineers said they were seeking a 100 percent wireless system that would run on battery technology rather than overhead wires.

While early renderings of the streetcar system always included wires, a wireless system was an option city officials wanted to explore. However, there are many unknowns that make a completely wireless system risky to pursue.

“We do not have the tools in the toolbox to do 100 percent off-wire,” said Jeff Bezdek, a subcommittee member.

Conversations with multiple subcommittee members over the past week revealed some concern that pursuing a wireless system would put the project over budget and significantly delay the completion date.

A June meeting of the subcommittee was canceled because conversations over what type of system to pursue were still taking place, which left the subcommittee with no items to vote on or discuss. Subcommittee members met with city staff last week in quorumless meetings in an effort to get on the same page about how to move forward.

Problems with wireless

“Our goal is to be 100 percent off-wire,” Rick Gustafson, an engineer with Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., told the streetcar subcommittee in April. “But it would be very risky for us to seek only a system that is 100 percent off-wire.”

One of the reasons a wireless system would be risky is that the city would be required to purchase wireless cars without a guarantee of what type of system technology it could get. State law and city charter prevents the city from hiring the same firm to design and build the system.

“With streetcar projects, typically a city will say here is what we want and here is what we can afford,” Todd said. “But we have to go in pieces … with a design, bid then build process.”

Wireless technology exists, but because it’s a technology that manufacturers often keep secret, exact costs are hard to estimate. If the city were to pursue a completely wireless system, there is the risk it would exceed the $130 million budget and delay the construction completion date.

“We are the only city to do a streetcar that has that design-build restriction on how we can bid the project,” said subcommittee chairman Nathaniel Harding.

Ward 6 Councilor Meg Salyer said the city was at a point where a streetcar technology needed to be picked.

“If we wait too much longer in selecting the propulsion system, I think we are probably going to run into a push back on the total timeline, and that may also push up on budget,” Salyer said. “It’s beginning to feel to me as if we are needing to make a decision.”

Jeff Bezdek looks at a photo of a Kinkisharyo hybrid streetcar he took at a demo in Dallas. (Mark Hancock)

Jeff Bezdek looks at a photo of a Kinkisharyo hybrid streetcar he took at a demo in Dallas. (Mark Hancock)

Hybrid model

No matter what type of system the city goes with, the streetcars it buys will have to include battery technology to travel at least a short distance without wires. An overhead wire system will not work under the railroad bridge that separates downtown from Bricktown. That means the streetcars will have to run on battery power for at least 100 feet or so.

Subcommittee members told city officials last week that they expect a request for proposal draft for streetcars to be presented at a meeting later this month. The RFP will require cars that can handle the wireless path under the bridges, but beyond that manufacturers will be able to respond with cars that can travel even further on battery power.

Depending on the type of RFP response the city receives from manufactures, a partially wireless system could be build.

“I think there will be extra consideration given to manufacturers that have a record and proven ability to extend the wireless element,” Harding said. “But this is going to be a system that is mostly on wires.”

Where to put wires

Some downtown property owners have expressed a dislike for overhead wires and it’s possible the city may be able to build a system that is partially wireless. However, where the wires are located will be based on engineering needs, rather than the wishes of property owners.

“[The placement of wires] is going to come down to more of a technical issue, rather than an aesthetic or political issue,” Todd said. “There are some technical things that will dictate where wires go.”

Subcommittee members said the streetcar project is a few months behind schedule, but the delay is not to a point where it will impact the finish date.

“We have a budget and we will make the project fit the budget,” Todd said. “There may be some technology options when it comes to wires, but we need to move forward.”

 

Ben Felder

Ben is a news reporter covering local politics, City Hall and education in urban Oklahoma City. He lives in OKC with his wife, Lori, and son, Satchel. Ben holds a masters in new media journalism from Full Sail University and is an OKC transplant from Kansas City, Mo. Twitter: @benfelder_okg

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