Greater Oklahoma City Chamber - Before regional transit, cities must agree on structure

Before regional transit, cities must agree on structure

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

by Brian Brus

Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – The representatives of six metro cities creating a new regional transit authority seem to be moving toward something akin to the Connecticut Compromise of 1787.

The historic deal reached during the Constitutional Convention balanced the demands of small states with their larger neighbors so that federal lawmaking would be based on both proportional population representation and equality of position.

Del City is a good example of the friction between those two concepts, as outlined in a white paper guiding the regional transit authority task force. On one hand, the smallest founding city in the fledgling RTA wants funding for a mass transit system to be equitable so that its 22,000 residents don’t shoulder more burden than Oklahoma City’s 640,000.

On the other hand, according to the Holmes & Associates document, the city also wants to recognize, “Importance of each member having a voice and no one member exerting too much control.”

The task force has several months yet to work out the details, said John Johnson, executive director of the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, which is shepherding RTA task force meetings. The group met Wednesday to consider more options from proven transit systems in cities such as Phoenix, Arizona; Detroit, Michigan; and San Diego, California.

The task force is exploring which route to take toward a unified system that could include buses, streetcars, bicycle sharing programs, rail and even boats along the Oklahoma River.

“Democracy is complicated,” Johnson said. “We’re taking small bites, one step at a time, building consensus about where we want to go and how to pay for it. It’s just as important to figure out what happens to the existing transit systems we already have.”

Task force members probably won’t be directly involved in the governance structure they choose. The Midwest City contingent, represented by Mayor Matt Dukes and City Manager Guy Henson, told Holmes & Associates that they could not support having elected officials or city staff members on the RTA board. That was true also of the Norman team, headed by Mayor Lynne Miller and former Mayor Cindy Rosenthal. Norman officials said at-large candidates – if that model is chosen – must have unanimous support for appointment to avoid political conflicts.

Funding sources will be key, of course. Oklahoma City’s contingent, headed by Councilwoman Meg Salyer and City Manager Jim Couch, said a half-cent sales tax is not politically practical, while Midwest City said a half-cent is possible, depending on benefits. Moore City Hall, represented by City Manager Brooks Mitchell, told Holmes & Associates that 9 percent is the total sales tax ceiling and that an ad valorem tax to pay for a rail corridor is preferred.

Norman, which has grown to about 122,000 people around the University of Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is concerned about losing control over funding to its successful bus system. The city wants to build on its strong city-university partnership, officials said.

On the matter of buses, Moore envisions rubber-wheel transport to rail stops; City Hall is not interested in the regional bus or express bus concepts.

Johnson said the task force will likely cut and paste material from various systems as members create their first governance document. Aspects such as buses might be initially excluded and left for each city to manage as they unite on rail first, but it’s too early to say.

“It’s certainly possible to exclude existing rubber-tire systems from the purview of the regional transit authority. But most other authorities have found that wasn’t successful for very long. At some point, you’ve got to have it all under one umbrella to have it efficient and functional,” Johnson said.

In Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, transit services are split between a regional authority, which handles bus and light rail, and a third-party operator responsible for commuter rail between the major cities. Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, Utah, a single transit authority operates and maintains all mass transportation modes. Detroit is in a transition from multiple operators to a regional coordinating structure.

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, represented by government relations specialist Derek Sparks, has expressed interest in providing campaign advocacy on behalf of the RTA member cities.

Read the story at JournalRecord.com