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Expanding Rail Transit

Written by Dick Pryor on Friday June 5, 2009

(Left to right: Host Dick Pryor, Evan Stair, Deborah Fischer Stout, Dave Herbert, Dr. Charles Wesner)

Interesting discussion this week on the ideas for expanding rail transportation, particularly high-speed rail in Oklahoma. Evan Stair and Deborah Fischer Stout of the Northern Flyer Alliance presented the reasoning behind the proposal to extend the conventional passenger rail route, the Heartland Flyer, north from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kansas. In Newton, the Amtrak extension would connect with the Southwest Chief, which extends from Chicago to Los Angeles. Doing this would allow Oklahomans to traverse much of the United States by rail.

We also discussed the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan, released in April of this year. Under the plan (Vision for High-Speed Rail in America), Oklahoma City and Tulsa would be connected as part of the South Central high-speed rail corridor. You can see a map of the route in the PDF of the strategic plan. Former State Senator Dave Herbert has been a proponent of high-speed rail for many years. He was excited that Oklahoma was one of the state’s selected for high-speed rail construction, to be funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

An important element of the expansion of rail transit in Oklahoma is the Union Station railyard in Oklahoma City. Dr. Charles Wesner’s group, OnTRAC, supports realignment of the new I-40 Crosstown Expressway to preserve the railyard, which could serve as the connecting hub for passenger, high-speed and commuter rail (serving central Oklahoma). A recent decision by the Federal Surface Transportation Board allows state transportation officials to proceed with the current construction plans. That decision becomes effective June 9, but Wesner says the rules in no way obligates the BNSF line to abandon the rail line or ODOT to pave over the railyard at Union Station. OnTRAC has been urging a move of the Crosstown route 125 feet immediately south of the Union Station railyard. We invited Oklahoma Department of Transportation Director Gary Ridley to be part of the program, as well, but he was unavailable. We will be following up on this program, and defintely want Director Ridley to be part of that next discussion.

A couple of thoughts that came up after our discussion. Deborah Fischer Stout mentioned that every dollar spent in developing railroad infrastructure saves $52 in highway maintenance. And, Dave Herbert pointed out that as CAFE standards increase for automobiles (requiring greater fuel efficiency) there will be fewer fuel tax dollars available to maintain highways. Thus, an investment in rail, he suggests, would be a wise investment by providing transportation infrastructure at a reasonable cost.

This is a fascinating and rapidly-evolving topic. Hope you enjoy the program. And just remember, this show is the start of our discussion of rail transit in Oklahoma, not the end of it.

Until next time,
Dick Pryor


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