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Highway hysteria

I have been searching for the words, and darn it all if Evan Stair didn’t just go off and say exactly what I would have said if I had several hours to collect my thoughts. Stair is an attorney and rail advocate in Oklahoma. It is fairly typical for him to make sense.

Passenger Rail Oklahoma is a grass roots advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation and expansion of passenger rail in Oklahoma and Kansas.

I didn’t want to be the first one to bring up the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis with regard to our interstate system before someone else did. I expected the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) or our sensationalistic news media to sink to the low ground first. THE CAUSE OF THE COLLAPSE HAS NOT EVEN BEEN DETERMINED YET!!!! ODOT’s David Streb said last night that the present overhead 4.5 mile Oklahoma City Crosstown is crumbling and requires some $1 million to maintain each year has allowed the opportunity. I recall a press release from ODOT a few months back that said our roads and bridges should be built to be beautiful. Whatever happened to functionally efficient, safe, and fiscally responsible? Do the people behind this relocation actually have more than transportation on their minds?

The $1 million annual pricetag is a pretty small price to pay in comparison with the $557 million pricetag to replace the crosstown bridge. Will we get 557 years use out of the new road? Will anyone reading this care in the year 2564? It reminds me of the Zager and Evan’s song “In the Year 2525.” It does matter when we tax unborn generations for present gain.

Rail infrastructure IS the fiscally conservative approach. That goes for both freight and passenger. This nation forgot that after WWII and has yet to awaken. The freedom of the highway isn’t so free anymore is it?

Freight railroads are basically self sustaining. They pay for the upkeep of their own track infrastructure and signaling systems while paying taxes, in some cases through the very communities they pass through. Additionally, they serve to take many many strings of semi-trailers off of our roads thus saving more taxpayer dollars through reduced damage to our roads. Still, they must compete on an uneven playing field with the heavily subsidized long haul interstate trucking industry. When public funding is involved it is minimal, such as the $2.6 million Oklahoma invested in the BNSF Railway infrastructure between Oklahoma City and the Red River in 1999. This improved freight capacity on the route while also allowing for increased speed limits on the Heartland Flyer route. Obviously with the devastating floods of the past several months and government decisions to increase world trade further public investment is needed.

Look at the Heartland Flyer project for a moment. In 1999 Oklahoma, received some $23 million from a larger federal tax rebate to bring Amtrak back into the state. Unfortunately, the highway builders at ODOT stunted its growth potential by terminating it in Oklahoma City. It should have operated to Kansas City from day-one with a cost offset of Mail/Express. Eight years later, not a single package has traveled by mail on the Heartland Flyer, despite the language contained in the first three year contract with Oklahoma. It is not hard to argue that Oklahoma’s then transportation Czar Neal McCaleb ruined the image and grand potential of the Flyer through that one calculated mistake. Few mention that the Heartland Flyer, although consuming some $30 million over its 8 year lifespan its revenue through economic development is keeping pace with the cost of the train. In other words, it is giving back to the communities serves. The $4 million cost of the Heartland Flyer annually, operating on a 206 mile route, could operate for over 100 years based upon the Crosstown relocation project alone.

Even more gross is the fact that as we enter a grand transportation crisis in this nation, apparently revealed by the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, state DOT’s are arguing for more transportation dollars exclusively for roads and bridges. Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result is the surest sign of insanity. I would argue that with the lack of mass transportation in this nation, with the crumbling road infrastructure, and with the low cost of rail, we are in fact “doing the same thing again and again.”

Dwight Eisenhower’s plan for a coast-to-coast national defense highway network, now called the interstate highway system, has been revolutionary. However, it has become an albatross around our fiscal necks. It is overbuilt. There are so many redundant routes through our nation’s metropolitan areas as to beg the question, “Is our national interstate highway system overbuilt?” Many of these intercity routes have replaced mass transit. The uninformed typically speak of the freedom afforded by our metro interstate highways. Some communities are discovering that this freedom is not so free. It can be costly. In fact as we have just learned, it can be deadly.

Amtrak will receive just $1.4 billion in subsidy this year. That is for a 22,000 mile, 46 state, 500 + destination network. The redundant (remember I-240 runs on the south side of Oklahoma City and I-44 on the north) 4.5 mile crosstown relocation alone will consume over one third of Amtrak’s entire federal subsidy. Interstate trucking, if it must run on highways, could be diverted over these two roads.

What else could be purchased with the $557 million? The Sapulpa, OK to Oklahoma City rail route, a part of the USDOT federal High Speed Rail South Central Corridor requires rebuilding before Tulsa can be linked to Oklahoma City. In March of 2001, Carter Burgess estimated that the cost of such a rebuild would be $152 million. That leaves some $400 million for operational, capital rolling stock, and maintenance costs.

Some of that $400 million could be used to develop a commuter rail system, based out of Oklahoma City’s Union Station rail yard to connect not only with high speed trains between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, but also to surrounding populated communities such as Norman, Edmond, Guthrie, Shawnee, Yukon, El Reno, Del City, and Midwest City. It could link Altus AFB, Fort Sill and Tinker AFB (remember base closings come up occasionally). It could bring people from these communities and installations to the core of downtown Oklahoma City, eliminating parking problems while making the area more attractive to development. It would save diminishing supplies of crude oil. It would take Oklahoma City out of the Environmental Protection Agency penalty zone with regard to CO2 emissions.

To me being free is not having to have the hassle of upkeep on an automobile. It is not having to pay as much in taxes to maintain or expand an overbuilt and crumbling US highway network. How much of a year do you spend at work just to keep your car operating so that you can drive to work? How would you like to have a bit of this money back for your kids education? How much work could you get done on a train before you even arrive at work? How much sanity would you gain in life if you “left the driving to someone else?” How many lives would be saved each year if we took more cars off of the roads. I am not talking about bridge collapses. I am talking about the 45,000 to 50,000 people who die each year on our nation’s highways. It is said that time is money and it is time to consider the value of that time you now spend with both hands glued to a steering wheel to get to work. Rail is the answer.


Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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