Central Oklahoma cities, towns and counties now can form transportation districts with each other, thanks to a bill approved by the state Legislature. Proponents say the measure brings Central Oklahoma one step closer to a comprehensive commuter transportation system.
Earlier this year, House Bill 2846, authored by Rep. Charlie Joyner, R-Midwest City, was passed. The bill sets into place a measure that allows any combination of cities, towns and counties to create a transportation authority for the purpose of planning, financing and operating regional transportation projects.
"The federal government, under the new administration, is pushing high-speed rail, and the country itself is pushing green initiatives," said former Sen. Dave Herbert, now a lobbyist with the County Officer and Deputies Association and Gov. Brad Henry's Liaison for Passenger Rail. "For the first time, Oklahoma has the opportunity for cities to come together to form transportation districts to start rail passenger service and can do other projects directly aimed at passenger rail."
Herbert authored legislation in the late '90s that gave cities and counties the ability to form transportation districts, but the new provision allows entities involved to operate the district as well.
"It's the first step in creating a commuter rail system in Oklahoma," Herbert said. "It also allows cities, towns and counties in Oklahoma to go after grants, stimulus funds and other government-sponsored programs for rail."
For the past 50 years, Oklahoma has been a "donor state" for federal gas taxes. In other words, for every dollar the state pays in, only 80 cents is returned to Oklahoma.
"The other 15 cents goes to states with passenger rail service," Herbert said. "For the first time, we have an opportunity to capitalize on funds and create a passenger rail service that connects cities to each other. In terms of economic development, this is a giant leap forward."
The bill paves the way for other transportation projects, said Jeff Bezdek, campaign director for the Modern Transit Project and public outreach subcommittee chairman for the Regional Transit Dialogue (RTD), a consortium of area leaders focused on a comprehensive transit system.
"It's a huge step," he said. "There may be some modifications made as the leaders of the (RTD) decide the type of model to use, but it gets the bulk of the legislation complete, so we can move forward."
The RTD consists of representatives from most Central Oklahoma cities and towns who meet to discuss ways to create a comprehensive transit system in the metro area using the 2005 Fixed Guideway Study as a framework. The study focuses on passenger rail routes between Oklahoma City and its neighbors, like Midwest City, Norman and Tinker Air Force Base.
"The MAPS streetcar is something of a nucleus of a larger system," Bezdek said. "We start toward implementing a regional system to allow us to start making decisions."
Passenger rail is a simmering topic for Oklahoma's neighboring states as well. In March, the Kansas Legislature passed Senate Bill 409, allowing a revolving fund for passenger rail development. Although currently unfunded, the bill also enables the Kansas Department of Transportation to enter into contracts with passenger rail providers and with other states, like Oklahoma.
Oklahoma and Kansas would have to develop a development plan for an interstate passenger rail service, but both have pledged $125,000 to match a $250,000 grant awarded to Kansas by the Federal Railroad Administration's High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program.
"No place really enjoys economic development without a complete transportation program in place," Herbert said. "That includes passenger rail." "Heide Brandes
photo Former Sen. Dave Herbert arrives just north of Bricktown to survey some tracks. photo/Mark Hancock