This is Part 2 of a 2 Part Series.  Click here to read Part 1 if you have not already done so, to better understand Part 2.

Is there demand for commuter rail service between Tulsa and Oklahoma City?

Evan Stair and Passenger Rail Oklahoma believes so.  In February 2014 three sold out Eastern Flyer demonstration trips were offered between Sapulpa and Oklahoma City.  The trips were incredibly popular with all tickets selling in ten days with only word of mouth and limited social media marketing.

So impressed was Iowa Pacific Holdings, the demonstration operator, they offered to immediately begin regular service.  However, the proposed sale by the state of the Sooner Sub line connecting the cities interfered and the Fallin administration refused to allow any carrier on the route until the sale was closed. (shown left: Eastern Flyer Demonstration Train Dome February 15, 2014.  Photo by Evan Stair)

Aggressive action, best laid plans, delays

After closing, Iowa Pacific partnered with the Stillwater Central as a passenger rail service provider.  A late 2014 start date was announced.  Members of the Tulsa City Council requested ODOT ensure they received rail service.  Then the inaugural date slipped as the entrepreneurial rail carrier stepped away to take over some responsibilities of a failing Amtrak route in Indiana, the Hoosier State Train.  The start was delayed further as the inaugural Eastern Flyer service plan was questioned by the City of Oklahoma City.

Iowa Pacific originally intended to bridge rail service gaps using luxury shuttle bus service.  Luxury buses were proposed for two reasons.

A 4.2 mile gap exists between the Sooner Sub termination at Midwest City and metro Oklahoma City where railroad infrastructure remains in dilapidated condition.  Further, the 18-miles between Sapulpa and downtown Tulsa is owned by the BNSF Railway.  Despite clearly stated language in the state’s 1998 BNSF Railway sale contract, a state owned 99-Year Buyer’s Passenger Service Rights agreement still required further legal interpretation.

So, the luxury shuttle buses were intended to bridge the dilapidated railroad service gap just to begin the project and develop interest.  Upgraded full rail service would be Tulsa to Oklahoma City, from downtown to downtown, at a later date.

The original Iowa Pacific Plan shown in the illustration indicate with dotted lines the proposed routes of the metro area luxury shuttle buses.  The red line shows rail service and future service between Midwest City-Oklahoma City and Sapulpa-Tulsa.  Source, Iowa Pacific Holdings.

Unfortunately, the most recent significant action was nearly two-years ago

The City of Oklahoma City became involved in May 2015.  Three council members contacted Iowa Pacific indicating city support was contingent upon reaching downtown Oklahoma City and Tulsa exclusively by rail.  Iowa Pacific agreed, and the city approved a resolution to fund a Union Pacific Railroad capital improvement study to repair 4.2 miles of Union Pacific track between Midwest City and downtown.  To date the city has not acted upon the September 2015 resolution.  This was the last official action taken to bring passenger rail service to Tulsa.

The situation continues to evolve oh so slowly

Iowa Pacific exited the Chicago-Indianapolis market March 1, 2017, citing insufficient funding to complete its existing contractual obligations to the state of Indiana.  Iowa Pacific has also laid-off most of its passenger staff; thus, igniting industry speculation the carrier is experiencing severe financial difficulties.

Coincidentally, the City of Oklahoma City broke ground on February 8, 2017 for a new Downtown Streetcar system.  The Heartland Flyer continues to be caught between rapidly increasing Amtrak contractual costs and legislative pressure to reduce appropriations.  Elections continue to transform federal, state, and local governments.  It seems the Eastern Flyer project has taken two steps back and is immobilized on the back burner.

What needs to be done

Since establishment in 2001, Passenger Rail Oklahoma membership has observed and participated in various rail initiatives.  Many have been unsuccessful, but a few have reached a point of successful conclusion.  Our organization has the institutional background necessary to propose methods required to revive the Tulsa initiative.  We understand the best practices and why some initiatives have been successful and others not.

To date the Tulsa initiative has been disjointed; fraught with various civic committees and task forces, lacking a single unifying leader to steer development.  The corridor communities have not been engaged simultaneously in a cooperative, accountable process where milestones are set and members held accountable.

Many do not even understand what can be achieved through such a project and why the project is important.  A generation has passed since Tulsans had the choice of driving and taking the train.  The choice has been removed from collective societal memory.

So what needs to be done?  Stakeholders must first understand the economic power afforded through transit oriented development.  They must commit to contributions within a strong cooperative organization for mutual benefit, not burden the initiative with a competitive intercity rivalry.  A respected, high-profile leader/project manager must emerge who understands the importance of the initiative to future economic sustainability if not corridor survival.  Consider these essential tasks:

  • Establish a strong corridor identity to establish unified route advocacy, planning, metrics, standards, marketing, and identify funding resources.
    • Begin with a corridor communities coalition. Membership should include the various railroad partners, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT), legislators, the governor’s office,  the cities of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, metropolitan government associations, and in-route communities that wish to participate.  An example of an organization follows:
      • The most successful of organizations is the Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization (TEMPO). TEMPO was formed initially by the mayors of small town eastern Texas communities to save Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis-Dallas/Fort Worth-Austin-San Antonio Amtrak train service.
      • TEMPO continues to schedule regular meetings where successes and failures are discussed with Amtrak, communities, and state stakeholders.
    • Establish a Regional Economic and Transportation Authority (RETA) as outlined in state statute § 68-1370.7. Communities in the Dallas/ Fort Worth metroplex have established the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Authority, Trinity Railway Express, and the Denton County Transportation Authority.  These authorities collect not just taxes but federal grant dollars to fund system development and improvement.  This is the funding mechanism used to pay for capital improvements and operations where fare box receipts do not cover costs.
      • Contrary to some statements and beliefs, no carrier is capable of providing this service on a for-profit basis.
      • Capital costs for a Positive Train Control (PTC) system, a looming federal requirement, will cost between $10 million and $70 million. This collision avoidance system is required by federal mandate, but federal grants have been available in the past.
      • Station infrastructure
      • Equipment purchases/ refurbishment
    • Complete initial tasks as committed to by various communities.
      • Oklahoma City: The city needs to meet with the Union Pacific to schedule completion of its Del City-Oklahoma City downtown access study.
      • The City of Tulsa must request a meeting with ODOT to begin the process of interpreting a “99-Year Buyers Passenger Service Rights” contract, purchased by the state from the BNSF Railway in 1998. This agreement allows the state to name a carrier to operate up to four passenger trains on 18 miles of BNSF track between Sapulpa and the Tulsa Union Depot vicinity downtown.  ODOT and the city must also negotiate with the railroad for a location where a station can be established downtown.
    • ODOT must identify a carrier to operate the service. This need not be Amtrak; however, a bid package should be released to industry providers to structure a best fit financial/ operational agreement.
    • Develop a timeline for implementation. Hold project owners accountable.

The state stands at a point of government collapse due to revenue failures.  While it would be disingenuous to claim the Eastern Flyer will bring the state back to prosperity, it can play a role.  Economic experts agree Oklahoma must diversify its energy sector economy.  Attracting new business demands more flexible public services, even if they are derived from public-private partnerships.

The transportation revolution is now in full swing nationally.  The Oklahoma City Streetcar project will be a game changer for that community.  It is time for Tulsa leaders to at a minimum begin planning for their transportation revolution through the restoration of intercity service initially between Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Fort Worth with a future vision to Kansas City and Chicago.

What can you do to help?

What is needed most is leadership from a high-profile elected official to orchestrate a plan to move forward and realize this 16 year dream of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma’s two largest metropolitan areas.  Four-term Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City has declared that he will not seek re-election in 2018.  That leaves Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum as the logical choice to take on the task of developing and managing a strategy to move Tulsa to OKC passenger rail service forward.  He might well be more inclined to take on this responsibility if enough Tulsans encourage and support him in this effort.  You can email him here:  mayor@cityoftulsa.org

Editors Note:  The views expressed on this web site are those of our contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of Smart Growth Tulsa, its Trustees, Advisory Board Members, or our affiliate member organizations unless specifically stated.

See these related articles about the Sooner Sub and Tulsa to OKC rail service:

WHAT HAPPENED TO TULSA’S PASSENGER RAIL SERVICE? – PART I OF II

MAKING THE CASE FOR THE SOONER SUB

BAND TOGETHER TO SAVE THE SOONER SUB

 

 

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