Monday, April 14, 2014
TULSA – Deciding on passenger rail service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa is like walking up to a buffet and trying to choose what to pile on your plate.
State transportation officials describe many details and variables, such as speed, straightening dozens of curves, and upgrading 100 crossings on the 97-mile route.
Add the possible sale of the line as the next course as state officials and passenger train supporters chew on rail service to connect the state’s biggest metropolitan areas.
Five state cabinet secretaries who have been reviewing bids to purchase the state-owned rail line called the Sooner Subdivision will give a recommendation to the Oklahoma Transportation Commission on May 5.
The recommendation could be either to sell the line or not do anything, said Kenna Carmon, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
In February, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Watco Cos. LLC/Stillwater Central Railway were picked to negotiate for the line with the state.
People favoring passenger rail service are waiting on the decision either way, Rick Westcott said on Friday. Westcott is a former Tulsa City Councilman and longtime champion of a passenger rail line. He is also chairman of the Tulsa Rail Advisory Council.
“The decision is about whether it is in the public’s best interest to sell the line,” Westcott said.
The service, potentially known as the Eastern Flyer, has support, Westcott said. There is a rally, sponsored by the Friends of Eastern Flyer, on the Capitol steps at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Westcott said.
At the same time, ODOT is conducting another $5.3 million study, the fifth in 14 years on the route. That is called the Tulsa to Oklahoma City Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan. It will evaluate how passenger rail could improve inter-city connectivity, said ODOT spokeswoman Brenda Perry. The Corridor Investment Plan includes an evaluation of service options, investment requirements, and environmental impacts.
Locations of train stations would be decided by cities along the route, Carmon said. The sale of the Sooner Sub line would not cancel the corridor study. It is being funded by the Federal Railroad Administration, which gave $2.2 million, and $3.1 million in ODOT funds. The study is not expected to be complete for another year. There have been previous, more general studies in the corridor, some of which looked at the possibility of high-speed rail, Carmon said.
Previous studies include the 2001 ODOT High Speed Passenger Rail Feasibility Study, the 2002 Oklahoma High Speed Rail Initiative: Oklahoma City to Tulsa High Speed Rail Corridor Cost Study, the 2010-2035 Oklahoma Long Range Transportation Plan and the 2012 ODOT Oklahoma Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Study.
Cost estimates developed in these older studies for improvements or new alignments may be outdated, so the best and most comprehensive estimates will be the ones developed in the current study, said Terri Angier, ODOT’s chief spokeswoman.
Westcott said the study is not necessary.
“That is a smokescreen,” Westcott said. “They only need to study it again if they plan to use federal funds to upgrade the line, or if they plan to build a new rail line.”
If the state sells the rail line, it moves into private hands and ODOT does not need to study anything, Westcott said.
“If ODOT keeps ownership of the line but leases it to someone like Iowa Pacific Holdings, there is not construction or federal money and no need for a study,” Westcott said.
Chicago-based Iowa Pacific operated the Eastern Flyer demonstration train on the Tulsa-Oklahoma City rail corridor this year. In a letter to Gov. Mary Fallin in February, Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis called it a success.
Westcott said Iowa Pacific would be his choice to operate passenger service.
“They are not asking for operational subsidies,” Westcott said. The Heartland Flyer, which runs between Oklahoma City and Dallas, costs the state more than $2 million annually.
In fact, Ellis in February requested that Fallin name Iowa Pacific the passenger operator on the Sooner Sub.
The Sooner Sub, a Class II line, has a 10 mph freight speed limit, Carmon said. Passenger trains have a 30 mph limit.
The track condition and curves both factor into the current speed rating, and major upgrades would need to consider both issues.
As passenger rail options are explored in the corridor, Carmon said there is not any funding for passenger rail between OKC and Tulsa.
Startup costs are just a piece of the puzzle, Carmon said. And, ODOT officials said there would need to be annual operational costs.
“We do not need all that money; all we need is someone to step to the plate, and Iowa Pacific has done that,” Westcott said.
Ellis, in his letter to Fallin, said Iowa Pacific could offer passenger service at no cost to the state.
J. Michael Patterson, ODOT executive director, said in a March 5 reply to Ellis that since ODOT is considering the sale of the rail line, ODOT could not yet name a rail passenger service provider.
Attempts to reach Ellis were not successful.