Passenger rail isn't a new concept in the Oklahoma City metro area, but when President Barack Obama announced plans in April to spend $8 billion of the $787 billion federal stimulus money on high-speed rail, suddenly that old concept got a breath of new life.
The Federal Railroad Administration has identified 10 passenger rail projects around the country, including one that links Little Rock, Ark., to Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and then on to Texas with stops in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.
But another short-line rail project may be ahead of the pack. It's the little rail line that could " a stretch of state-owned rail and right-of-way that stretches from Tinker Air Force Base/Midwest City into Bricktown. And, if all logistics fall into place, this commuter rail could be a concept that is close to reality.
Why? Before stimulus money was even part of the mix, a plan to purchase abandoned rail lines in Oklahoma put this little jaunt of a railroad in prime position to be a stimulus grant project.
But, according to new Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley, "All interested parties have to come together on this."
Like many other major infrastructure and transportation projects, the devil is always in the details.
THE MIDWEST CITY LINE
Why this particular line could be a big player in an initial round of rail operation is because much of the infrastructure is already in place. The tracks exist from Tinker Air Force Base through Midwest City and Del City and into Oklahoma City. The lines being discussed extend north from Tinker and then northwest to Bricktown. The track crosses near Uptown Plaza, Bank of Oklahoma at S.E. 15th and Midwest Boulevard and across Air Depot between S.E. 15th and Reno Blvd. The track crosses Reno and Sooner, travels through Del City and ends in Bricktown.
Although some refurbishing would be necessary in order to allow the passenger cars to operate, the state already owns most of the right-of-way.
"Midwest City is set with a $20 million dollar advantage over anyone else around Oklahoma City," said Dave Herbert, former state senator from Midwest City and Gov. Brad Henry's liaison for passenger rail. Herbert is a registered lobbyist for the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma and the County Officers and Deputies Association. He recently served as the legislative liaison for the County Government Legislative Council.
"In the past, the state had the foresight to buy up the abandoned rail lines. Back when I was in the Senate, I had a constituent call and say that line from Midwest City to Bricktown was about to be abandoned."
Herbert said he convinced the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to purchase a portion of the line and right-of-way for $265,000, an unheard of price for that much land and rail. The overall purchase for five miles of line was $350,000.
"If you were to spend $265,000 now on rail and right-of-way, you wouldn't get a half a block," he said.
Surprisingly, the existing track was in decent shape " especially considering certain sections have been in place since 1892. Ties and other parts of the actual rail would need to be replaced. Bridges that crossed various creeks, including one major spot of bridge repair over Crutcho Creek at Sunnylane Road, would need to be refurbished as well.
"Hopefully we have the money we need (stimulus funds) to purchase the equipment and fix the bridges that need fixed, especially the one at Fourth and Sunnylane. That one is in terrible shape," Herbert said.
He also presented the idea of a passenger rail line to the Midwest City Council, which agreed to do a study on a possible passenger platform in Midwest City.
"It was determined that Midwest Boulevard, just west and north of S.E. 15th Street, would be the best place for a platform," Herbert said.
Although the Midwest City track is in better shape than others, ongoing funding to run the line is a sticking point.
"Public transportation doesn't pay for itself," he said. "Midwest City is primed and ready to go. No other city in the metro has a rail line that's bought up and in this good of shape."
Bob Kemper, government affairs director for the Northern Flyer Alliance, is also optimistic about the line.
"We will be able to establish commuter rail lines for pennies on the dollar because the state owns the lines and leases it out," he said. "Right now, that line is leased to Watco, which is paying for it, but no one is using it.
"I think this project is right at the top of the list for a grant through the stimulus program."
Not everyone is as optimistic as Herbert or Kemper. The cost of buying equipment and actually operating a commuter line is daunting, and working with the major railroad companies can be a sticky process.
"The two concerns we face right now is "¦ resolving the repair issues on that line and "¦ working with Union Pacific and ODOT on the right-of-way issues and the costs associated with using the line and the cost of equipment," said Midwest City Manager Guy Henson.
In addition to the bridge repairs needed, the rail line from the North Canadian Bridge into Bricktown is a Union Pacific line. The parties involved would need to either negotiate with Union Pacific for use of the line or determine if enough right-of-way existed to lay a second track parallel to the UP line.
"Another question: How will we pay to operate the line? Everyone involved is open to dialogue about the project. Oklahoma City is certainly interested, but a lot of pieces have to come together on this," Henson said.
"I do think everyone is receptive, but bringing the line up and creating an operational rail is one thing. You have to also consider equipment, operational cost of the line, how to get from the North Canadian to Bricktown. There are a lot of details that need to be addressed."
In December 2008, an idea to create a trust between Midwest City, Del City and Oklahoma City was proposed. Representatives from the Northern Flyer Alliance and the communities involved met to discuss issues and costs on a commuter line. However, a partnership has not been legitimized yet, although Kemper said some sort of partnership would almost be a requirement for a project of this scope.
Ridley, who served as ODOT head from 2001 to 2009, said the project was viable, but "it is still premature to draw any conclusions" on if the Midwest City track could be part of stimulus grant funds.
"We're waiting on ideas from Union Pacific and for start-up costs. Midwest City, Del City, Oklahoma City all have to be involved in the discussions, but we think it has some possibilities with discretionary funding with stimulus money," said Ridley, who was appointed to his cabinet post in April. "All the players have to be on board because it's not just the initial start-up, but the long-term sustainability of the track. We're putting together the numbers, but Midwest City, Oklahoma City, Del City and Union Pacific are ... players here that have to be of the same mind. There's always more to things than meet the eye."
RUNNING THE NUMBERS
A Northern Flyer Alliance study on the cost estimate of the Midwest City to Bricktown Commuter Rail Pilot Project was completed in May and estimates that the rehabilitation of that line would cost just more than $12 million. Of that cost, the rolling stock " or rail " cars, would cost approximately $4.9 million, and the rehabilitation of the line is estimated at $7,272,000.
"You know, Albuquerque has less population than the Oklahoma City metro, and they put in a commuter rail. They hauled over a million people in the first two years of operation to Santa Fe," Kemper said. "Now, they are thinking of expanding that commuter rail to El Paso and Denver. Oklahoma is a high-speed rail corridor. Why we need to do it now is that we can do it for cents on the dollar. If we wait 20 years, we won't be able to do it as cheaply. The future is now, and it has to be done."
And, although the grant guidelines for stimulus money were released last month, Ridley said those guidelines may change.
"We think this project has some possibilities," he said, noting that ODOT planned to take funding requests though the end of the summer. "Heide Brandes