Tuesday, October 3, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY – Discussions about passenger rail in Oklahoma turned to practical matters of speed and money Tuesday when a Tulsa lawmaker brought a contractor to the state Capitol to talk numbers.
Government officials, economic developers and industry experts have been talking about high-speed rail options for months. Argument points are nearly as predictable as a train schedule: Supporters say the transportation could help the state in several ways, but opponents point out that it’s difficult to estimate costs and financing.
State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, sponsored an interim study on the topic that was presented Tuesday to the Senate Transportation Committee. Matthews brought general contractor Jon McGrath to the meeting because he has worked in the rail industry for decades. McGrath discussed how he would recommend implementing a high-speed rail system between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which residents could use to get to work, basketball games at the Chesapeake Arena and concerts at the Bank of Oklahoma Center.
Matthews said Oklahoma is lagging other states across the country, particularly those with larger cities, which have already embraced passenger rail.
“I don’t think we should continue to be the last state to implement technology,” he said.
An Oklahoma City-Tulsa route would be a key step in integrating Oklahoma into Amtrak’s nationwide framework, plugging the region into hubs in the Dallas and Kansas metros. Oklahoma City is already attached to Dallas via the Heartland Flyer; riders can take connecting trains from Dallas to other Texas metros. A Tulsa extension could take riders to Newton, Kansas, where trains run to the other major Midwestern towns such as St. Louis and Chicago. The Amtrak system has connections to both coasts.
The first step would be connecting Oklahoma’s two largest metros, said McGrath, president of railroad consulting firm McGrath LLC. Passenger rail between the two would increase the quality of life in both areas, alleviate road congestion and promote healthier lifestyles.
He also said that if the rail system met the national standard, they could travel as quickly as 220 mph. That would make Oklahoma City-Tulsa trips take less than half an hour.
The total project would likely cost between $2 billion and $3 billion, he said, but a public-private partnership could shift most of that cost to a contractor. He recommended placing the burden of securing rights of way for the route on the government and leaving the rest to private entities.
Although Oklahoma already has a rail system running from Oklahoma City to Tulsa, McGrath recommended against using it. He said the existing track has nearly 150 curves, and for a train to hit is maximum speed, it needs a straight trajectory. Instead, he said, officials should build a line along Interstate 44.
He also said it would be best to elevate the railway, essentially placing it on a bridge so that it doesn’t intersect with road traffic. Traffic warning lights and crossing gates wouldn’t be of much use for a train traveling at more than 200 mph, he said.
“The public’s not used to that, and you can’t always see it,” he said.
Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Mike Patterson said passenger rail would have limited benefit in the short-term because fewer than 200 people would be on the train at a time, a negligible difference to highway traffic that typically carries 80,000 automobiles per day.
“Based on our studies, it doesn’t make that much impact,” he said. “What it will do is help mitigate any future expansion requirements.”
As both cities grow larger and more interconnected, demand for transportation between them will continue to grow, he said. Diverting people early could help cut down the need for new construction projects.
He said that the rail option would provide another benefit as well.
“There are some people who prefer to travel by rail, either because they don’t want to drive or they can’t drive,” he said.