News » Commentary

Interurban blues



Old-line Oklahoma residents didn't enjoy the first two rounds of oil shocks that hit the U.S. in the Seventies and Eighties. The most recent round visited Oklahoma, and the reality of automotive and oil dependency is being driven home.

The time is now to revisit mass transit.

Oklahoma once upon a time had clean mass transit. It was called the interurban line, with tracks running all over the city. Passenger trains also went back and forth to destinations surrounding Oklahoma City, not so different from the commuter train lines that survive to this day in the northeastern corridor of the U.S. As I talk to old-time Oklahoma City residents about gasoline sticker shock, they speak in wistful terms of both the old trolley line and the trains that they would catch to Norman or Edmond to do a day's business.

We lost our trains. We can get them back. But we have to understand why we lost them.

The assumption is made that automobiles and highways killed electric mass transit. That is, in a sense, true. In the post-World War II Forties, General Motors Corp. had a lot of production capacity geared up to make heavy transport vehicles, including trucks. The Standard Oil Corp. had been providing fuel to the war machine at peak capacity. The two firms colluded together to create a system that ultimately wrecked electric mass transit in the United States. How?

They created a series of shell corporations and holding companies to purchase private electric trolley and electric bus lines. They then pulled up the trolley car tracks, crushed the electric buses, and either replaced them with diesel-burning buses or just let the local transit system languish. What was left? Cars, driven by individuals, on highways built with public money. GM and Standard got nailed on antitrust violations, but the damage was done, and clean mass transit disappeared from most of the United States.

What would such a system look like here? The east-west leg would run from Will Rogers World Airport to downtown and then east out to Tinker Air Force Base. The north-south line would run from Norman, parallel to Interstate 35/235. The line would then split, going out Northwest Expressway or up to Edmond and Guthrie in the other direction. Localized lines could also be developed at relatively "low" cost.

The egregious failure of Ernest Istook to help fund an Oklahoma City rail system while he was transportation appropriations chair in Congress leaves Oklahoma in a must-need situation. Under these conditions, startup and construction costs will increase while the time delay of getting meaningful rail online in the metro is extended.

The approximate cost of constructing a light-rail system to effectively serve the Oklahoma City metropolitan area is $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion. This price tag seems daunting until you consider that a conservative estimate of fuel costs of commuting metro residents is more than $2 billion a year.

Build the trains! We'll use them to get around. But there is, in my opinion, one catch. These should be public transportation systems, but not publicly owned and operated. The vehicle should be a private-public venture, run by a private franchise accountable to a public audit. Build trains, and watch development follow the tracks.

Gaddie is professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and president of the Southwestern Political Science Association.

Add a comment