Photo of Modern BRT

Expanding the range of transportation options in the Tulsa area will require a radically different approach to the traditional, auto oriented facility planning and design strategies of the past which primarily focus on auto capacity and relieving traffic congestion.

A high level of harmonization must be established between the city and other key agencies, most notably the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG), Tulsa Transit, the Tulsa Parking Authority, and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. These agencies must have a broad understanding of the multi-faceted transportation and land-use challenges and a consensus approach for solving them.

On the regional level, through various public outreach efforts, INCOG has determined the course the community wants to take in terms of strategic goals for the regional transportation system.

An earlier INCOG program, Destination 2030, determined the overriding purpose of the transportation system is to enhance and sustain the quality of life and economic vitality of the region. This is accomplished by judiciously developing, maintaining, and managing a transportation system that meets the accessibility needs of people and goods in the region through safe, environmentally prudent, and financially sound means.

On the local level, during the PlaniTulsa process, citizens expressed a desire for a wide variety of transportation choices for getting around town. They envisioned a network of transit options, major arterials, combined with pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods and employment centers that would result in one of the safest and efficient transportation systems in the country.

Another factor beyond planning that affects cities, including Tulsa, is the changing nature of Federal transportation funding priorities. Like many cities and regions, Tulsa has relied on Federal funding to address many of its transportation needs.

Federal funding is transitioning away from a formula based system that awarded funding to localities to increase vehicular capacity and serve transit dependent populations. The new approach is a proposal-based system that awards funding to enhance walking, biking, and transit facilities, in an effort to improve the livability of communities.

The so called six livability principles as defined by HUD are as follows: 1. Provide more transportation choices. Develop safe, reliable and economical transportation choices to decrease household transportation costs, reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote public health. 2. Promote equitable, affordable housing. Expand location- and energy-efficient housing choices for people of all ages, incomes, races and ethnicities to increase mobility and lower the combined cost of housing and transportation. 3. Enhance economic competitiveness. Improve economic competitiveness through reliable and timely access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services and other basic needs by workers as well as expanded business access to markets. 4. Support existing communities. Target federal funding toward existing communities—through such strategies as transit-oriented, mixed-use development and land recycling—to increase community revitalization, improve the efficiency of public works investments, and safeguard rural landscapes. 5. Coordinate policies and leverage investment. Align federal policies and funding to remove barriers to collaboration, leverage funding and increase the accountability and effectiveness of all levels of government to plan for future growth, including making smart energy choices such as locally generated renewable energy. 6. Value communities and neighborhoods. Enhance the unique characteristics of all communities by investing in healthy, safe, and walkable neighborhoods—rural, urban, or suburban.

It is clear that Tulsa must begin to reform its transportation decision making process to address these new livability principles. We simply must be more deliberate in coordinating housing, transportation and environmental planning for the region to be successful in qualifying for future federal dollars. The comprehensive plan identified two basic building blocks to help build this new system, a multi-modal street system and an expanded transit system.  Previously in this space we discussed Tulsa’s new “Complete Streets” policy, the first building block.

The goal of an expanded transit system, the second building block, is twofold. First, it provides a dependable and convenient alternative to the automobile. Secondly, this expanded and enhanced transit program will play an important role in influencing sustainable land development patterns.

People living and working in and around transit corridors can rely less on the automobile and use enhanced pedestrian, transit, and bicycle facilities. Households who elect to live near transit can often reduce the number of cars they own, thereby reducing the need for parking facilities.

The current delivery of public transportation in the Tulsa region is provided by the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority (MTTA), also known as Tulsa Transit. The fixed route service provides riders with access to regional shopping, health care, employment centers and educational institutions.

The existing routes of the MTTA bus system offer a safe, reliable and affordable transportation alternative for its current ridership. Unfortunately, funding cuts over the years have reduced service hours to bare-bones with average headway times of 55 minutes even during peak hours.  After hours and Saturday service are severely limited and there is no service on Sunday.

In spite of the hard work and dedication of capable MTTA management and staff, Tulsa’s transit system is one of the most underperforming for a city our size in the nation.  While the City Council has championed modest increases in transit funding over the past couple of years, the present Mayor has shown little appetite for making any dramatic improvements to the system, in spite of a public policy mandate to do so.

The bottom line is this.  We have plans, lot of transportation plans.  We have the PlaniTulsa Comprehensive Plan, we have the RTSP (Regional Transit System Plan), and we have the INCOG Fast Forward Plan to name but a few.

What we have been lacking to date is the political will to find the necessary funding sources to implement these plans.  Every day that we fail to implement these plans we lose ground to those peer cities that we compete against for growth and new businesses.  Tulsa is one of the largest cities in the United States that does not have a dedicated source of funding for our mass transit system.  Not much will change until we do.

Originally published in Urban Tulsa Weekly October 31, 2012

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