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Bumper cars


Clifton Adcock January 12th, 2011

Although he’s for public transit, one City Council member is railing against the method and cost of the fixed downtown streetcar concept.

One of the major projects of the approved MAPS 3 program came under fire by an Oklahoma City council member who said it was at odds with other city initiatives and something city leaders would end up regretting.

Around $130 million from the MAPS 3 fund is dedicated to the modern streetcar project, which will likely be on a fixed rail system downtown. Those involved with the project say it will hopefully eventually connect with a larger public rail system that is currently being studied.

At the Dec. 21 City Council meeting, city leaders were presented with possible routes for the downtown streetcar, as well as an intermodal hub, which is planned to serve several public transportation methods.

Around $10 million of MAPS 3 money is set aside to develop an intermodal hub, and the possible sites for the hub have been whittled down from 10 to three, said Rick Cain, public transportation director.

The MAPS 3 streetcar system is separate from the planned commuter rail service, which would likely extend to several surrounding communities such as Norman, Midwest City, Yukon and Edmond, Cain said.

The possible routes presented at the meeting came from the Alternatives Analysis Steering Committee, a group seeking ways to bring the area rail system to reality. The committee does not have a budget to implement the downtown rail project; official recommendations for the exact route will come from the MAPS 3 Modern Streetcar Subcommittee, which will pass its recommendations on to the MAPS 3 Citizens Advisory Board and eventually on to the City Council.

The MAPS 3 modern streetcar project plays a very important role in eventually implementing the larger rail system, Cain said, because the MAPS 3 funds going toward the streetcar might be considered local matching funds for public transit — a requirement to qualify for federal funding for the area rail system.

The downtown streetcar will not be cheap, however. Some estimates put the cost of laying the track and utility relocation at around $20 million per mile, with the city getting 5 or 6 miles of track out of its MAPS 3 funds.

Councilman Pete White questioned the wisdom of having a fixed-rail streetcar downtown, rather than a rubber-tire type streetcar.

White had voted to include the streetcar as part of the MAPS 3 initiative, but said he is beginning to regret that decision.

“As I see it going forward, and I see what the cost of it is going to be and how few people it’s going to serve and how much better that money could be spent on overall transportation things, I’m much less enchanted with it than I was,” White said.

Though the MAPS 3 subcommittee is working with the planners of Project 180, the $140 million redesign of downtown streetscapes, to coordinate efforts and possibly save money on utility relocation, a “tremendous amount of loss” and wasted money are possible, White said, and initiatives to improve walkability downtown are also at odds with the streetcar.

“I think it’s going to be so expensive.

We’re spending all this money downtown on walkability, and yet we’re concentrating this thing in an area where we want people to walk. I think we can do better,” White said. “It’s at counter purpose with 180. It’s at counter purpose with walkability. It’s at counter purpose that we ought to be doing things sustainable financially.”

Mark Gibbs, a member of the MAPS 3 transit subcommittee, addressed the council and defended the streetcar project, citing the project’s high poll numbers and the need for an expanded public transpor tation system.

“It’s a project I firmly believe in,” Gibbs said. “I see the streetcar and the hub and the commuter rail as very much intertwined. The streetcar will introduce people in Oklahoma City to mass transit.”

People who would otherwise not use public transit would be more likely to ride the streetcar, Gibbs said, and the fixed nature of the streetcar would provide predictability and reliability. Though the streetcar has a high initial cost, it would have an extremely lower operating cost than other forms of public transportation, he said.

“The streetcar is the first component in substantially improving transit in the city and the metro area,” Gibbs said.

Jill Adler, another subcommittee member, also defended the project, saying that it would allow people to get around downtown easier, and, with the creation of the hub, encourage people to use public transportation more often.

“People in Oklahoma used to driving cars are going to have difficulty with this concept of ‘let’s come into the hub and walk everywhere there is to walk downtown,’” Adler said. “I think one of the things the streetcar can do is open the concept of mass transit to people who would never consider using it. I think if you get people from Oklahoma City to ride the streetcar, stop at the hub where buses are going, all of a sudden it opens up the whole concept of ‘I don’t have to use my car.’” White responded that he was not opposed to downtown public transportation, just the method and cost of the streetcar.

“I’m not against transportation downtown; I’m against $20 million a mile for transportation that can’t be changed,” White said. “We have people in this town who can’t get to work because they can’t afford it because we don’t have an extensive enough bus route. And yet we’re willing to sink $20 million a mile to get you from Robinson to Walker.”

Councilman J. Brian Walters also took issue with the idea of the government encouraging the use of public transportation.

“Our cars are an extension of our freedom … It’s not our job to convince people to get out of their cars and take away that freedom,” Walters said.

Mayor Mick Cornett responded. “Yeah, but Brian, government subsidizes the streets and the fuel that goes into your car, so it is subsidizing your transportation,” Cornett said.

Read a transit project status report.

 
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