The Edmond Sun

January 24, 2013

Group looks at commuter rail for metro

James Coburn
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories on regional transit issues.

Metro drivers at rush hour experience traffic congestion when time is money, and rail transit gives other cities a competitive edge.

Such was the message of the Regional Transit Dialogue Steering Committee (RTD) when it met this week in downtown Oklahoma City.

“The decisions that we make are going to be very important and effect people for a long time to come,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.

Three rail corridors are suggested in the 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, said Hollie Massey, special programs officer with the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments. Stakeholder meetings and meetings for the public will be scheduled to address each corridor separately.

Oklahoma City ranked last among the 50th largest metro areas as best prepared for $4 gasoline, according to a 2008 study by Common Current. Oklahoma City ranked 84th out of 100 metro areas in serving the transit needs of its workforce, the Brookings Institute reported in 2011.

“Economic success in the 21st century means making a region attractive for an educated workforce,” 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, which is the reason for his appointment to the steering committee.

Rail transit is about economic development. Rail transit raises property values and tax revenue, supports retail districts and accelerates urban renewal, Hutchison said. It is a competitive tool already completed or in stages of development by many of the metro’s peer cities surrounding the state.

“Even though we hear rail transit needs to be subsidized, you’re counting your fares versus what it costs to operate the thing,” Hutchison said. “No one ever takes into account the tremendous local and state tax revenues that result from these systems.”

Energy efficient rail transit improves the quality of life with cleaner air, he said. People enjoy urban life without being so dependent on an automobile, Hutchison said.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) has generated an additional $128 million for the City of Dallas in annual tax revenues and $4.5 billion in property value increases, he said.

The RTD steering committee oversees the $1.25 million “Commuter Rail Corridor Analysis” being conducted by URS Corporation for ACOG. RTD is specifically looking at commuter rail as the most likely option for the metro and not light rail, Hutchison said.

DART is an example of light rail, which differs from commuter rail. Light rail runs on dedicated electric tracks on a special right-of-way, Hutchison said. Powered by diesel and electricity, the Heartland Flyer is an example of commuter rail running on existing freight tracks.

Light rail is more expensive to construct than commuter rail at a cost of $60 million to $80 million per track mile. Commuter rail costs $8 million to $10 million per mile, Hutchison said. This all-encompassing cost includes maintenance, acquiring right-of-way, laying down the track and operating the system.

“To build a light rail system between Edmond, Oklahoma City and Norman would cost $2 billion to $3 billion, whereas a commuter rail system would cost only $200-300 million,” Hutchison told The Edmond Sun.

Salt Lake City’s FrontRunner commuter rail system directly services Hill Air Force Base in Ogden. Hill is one of Tinker’s direct competitors. RTD is using the successful FrontRunner system as an example of the type of system RTD considers best for the metro.

“We’ve heard a lot about Tinker wanting to have a rail transit mode,” Hutchison said. “I just think that’s an important thing to know as we go forward in the discussion.”

The City of Denver estimates its redevelopment with transit rail will create 10,000 new jobs in its metro, Hutchison said.

“It’s going to cause many businesses to move to Denver because companies know their employees don’t like to sit in traffic,” he added. | 341-2121