The Edmond Sun

September 30, 2013

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Street cars in Oklahoma City's future

William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — The Moscow mass transit system is somewhat unique in that it follows a circular path through the Russian capital. And there is a story told of why it follows such a pattern. The system was built in the 1930s and was designed to be a symbol of the Soviet Union’s productivity and ability to provide transportation to the citizens and workers of Moscow.

The plans for it had to be approved personally by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and as a result, the blueprints prepared by the engineers who designed it featured straight lines that intersected the major thoroughfares of Moscow.

When the plan landed on Stalin’s desk in the Kremlin, he placed his teacup on it which left a brown circular imprint before he approved it by placing his initials on it. When the document was returned to the engineers, they concluded that Stalin wanted the system built on a circular system and hurriedly altered their plans accordingly.  

Needless to say, the streetcar system that was approved last week by the Oklahoma City Council was the result of a much greater degree of deliberation. The council authorized a route that was prepared by a transportation consultant that will take six street cars from the Downtown Transit Center on a 4.5 mile route that will include stops in Bricktown, the MidCity area Automobile Alley and the Santa Fe Station. A streetcar system for downtown Oklahoma City was included in the MAPS 3 Project that was approved by the voters of Oklahoma City several years ago.

A percentage of the sales tax that was levied in accordance with MAPS 3 was dedicated to funding the undertaking. A subcommittee of the Oklahoma City Council and a Citizens Advisory Committee recommended that the Council approve the plan.

The streetcars are supposed to be in operation by 2017, and an animation of the route it will follow is on the City of Oklahoma City’s website. The site includes several areas that are labeled as “possible future extension” that would extend the route further from the downtown area. And the significance of the streetcar system for the Oklahoma City metropolitan area may be that it will prompt suburban communities such as Edmond, Norman and Midwest City to fund a regional mass transit system that will connect to it.

And, in the event that the system does reach Midwest City and Tinker Air Force Base, that is located in that community, will be able to keep the majority of its civilian employees coming to work even if our national fuel supply is disrupted due to events in the volatile Middle East.  

That ability may insure that Tinker remains in operation when decisions are made in the future as to what military bases should remain in operation and which one should close. And the streetcar system will transform the civic culture in a variety of ways. The travel section of the Sunday New York Times recently reported on the “trolley dances” that are held on stops on some of the streetcar stops in the California communities of San Diego, Riverside, and Los Angeles. The article detailed how the dances came into being 15 years ago after a dance troupe in San Diego was unable to afford to rent a theater and decided to perform where people gathered to board and exit the streetcars. The success of that undertaking prompted dance troupes in Los Angeles and Riverside to start similar programs. Those dances have now become tourist attractions that bring people to those communities. And it is possible that at some future date cultural events will be held at stops on Oklahoma City’s streetcar line.

William F. O’Brien is an Oklahoma City attorney.