The Edmond Sun

February 22, 2013

Local commuter rail would depend on cooperation of railways

James Coburn
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Building three proposed commuter rail corridors from a downtown Oklahoma City hub will depend in part on whether existing railway companies believe the project benefits their interests, according to a recent meeting of the Regional Transit Dialogue Steering Committee.

Three rail corridors are suggested in the RTD study including a link to the $120 million modern street car system being constructed with an intermodal hub in downtown Oklahoma City. RTD calls for the hub to link Edmond, Norman, Midwest City and Tinker Air Force Base.

Union Pacific is also open to learning more about the project, said Raquel Espinoza, Union Pacific director of corporate relations and media.

“We generally do work with communities that are interested in exploring passenger rail,” Espinoza told The Edmond Sun.

Espanoza said the top priority of Union Pacific is to support the businesses that are counting on the railway to ship their goods.

“Aside from that we’re open to reviewing plans for feasible projects that involves commuter rail,” she said.

The rail lines don’t want there to be a disturbance in moving freight, said Marion Hutchison, an appointed citizen member of the RTD II Steering Committee. He is also chairman of OnTrac, a not-for-profit rail transit public interest organization.

“Everybody can understand that and there have been discussions with them about that concept,” Hutchison said. The RTD has been developing relationships with Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Santa Fe Railway.

“We’re going to work pretty hard through ODOT and their rail division because they clearly have a great relationship,” Hutchison said.

The Edmond Sun asked Burlington Northern Santa Fe if it would be interested in a plan if it provided for two main lines to be double tracked plus third-line sidings wherever they need them through the corridor.

“Our national standard policy is that we are for the advancement of passenger rail,” said Joe Faust, BNSF director of public affairs. “We listen to these proposals and where they make sense we will certainly continue that dialogue.”

Faust said BNSF likes to work with all the municipalities and agencies that are providing a valid proposal. Municipalities must first present a proposal. BNSF is open to dialogue to evaluate proposals to see if they are feasible, Faust said. Dialogue would continue depending on how a proposal impacts participating freight lines and freight transportation services, he added.

RTD is focusing on creating a Regional Transit Authority. RTA would be represented by elected or appointed officials to develop a plan to operate the transit project. A ballot issue would be needed to take to voters for a dedicated funding source, Hutchison said. Dedicated funding would allow the expansion of bus systems as well as building a hub with a commuter rail system.

Two years ago, the City of Norman created a grade separation of Robinson Street to go under the BNSF railroad tracks. BNSF required Norman to develop a sub structure in order to drop in a third track.

BNSF which passes through Edmond wants to have a full double track of all of their two main lines to Texas. That’s what they would require, Hutchison said.

“Currently it’s not double track and that’s a big incentive if an RTA was willing to have the budgeting,” Hutchison said. “You’d have to double track that line, plus third-line sidings that are out there.”

The north to south line of BNSF runs 40-50 trains a day through Oklahoma City, Hutchison said. A double-track the existing right-of-way would be a win for all parties, Hutchison said.

Union Pacific runs east to west. So a deal would need to be made with Union Pacific to run commuter rail to Midwest City for a short distance. The primary requirement of Union Pacific would be separate operations from their main line, Hutchison said. Most of those right-of-ways have room for two tracks, Hutchison said.

“Once you get over the Oklahoma River, the line running to Tinker is owned by the state,” Hutchison said. “But to get from downtown to that point, part of it is Union Pacific.”