Lifeboat, Anyone?


By Tom Elmore, Executive Director, NATI

What we should have learned from the destruction of the Webbers Falls I-40 Bridge last year was that, when the key east-west highway corridor in the world's only superpower can be cut down to a bare trickle for 90 days by a mere accident, both the nation and the state of Oklahoma have too many strategic eggs in one basket. History is full of the sad and disastrous consequences of disdain for "strategic redundancy." Many of those lost in the Titanic disaster had no choice but to drown because, in its fantastic arrogance, White Star Line had not provided enough lifeboats. It was a simple enough matter - but it was not taken seriously on a ship said to be "unsinkable."

In its 2-17-04 lead editorial, the DAILY OKLAHOMAN opined that, while those of us seeking to save strategic downtown-area rail infrastructure from the highway builders at ODOT "may be right," the "train" called the "New I-40 Crosstown" has "already left the station." What if it's NOT "a train?" What if it's actually more like a huge, unwieldy ocean liner headed in pitch darkness for an iceberg?

As the price of gasoline climbs, all Oklahomans should ponder whether OUR regional transportation system has any strategic redundancy. Does that matter - to potential businesses and folks who might move here? Does it matter to the futures of our military bases? Which ocean liner would YOU choose to travel on - the one WITH plenty of lifeboats - or the one whose crews just threw its lifeboats away?

OKC Union Station and its rail lines - a ready-made multimodal transportation complex - should be seen as Central Oklahoma's lifeboat. Local and state political leaders may be satisfied to delude themselves that our highways-only transport system is somehow "unsinkable," but its obvious vulnerabilities are altogether too apparent. Meanwhile, leaders of regionally neighboring cities with whom we must compete have seen to it that their areas HAVE the strategic redundancy offered by modern transit - and they're expanding it rapidly. It's the leaders of THESE cities who repeatedly counsel us not to destroy the Union Station facility - who repeatedly warn us - and find it unbelievable that leaders of ANY city neighboring theirs haven't yet "gotten the message."

Standard highway lobby-inspired arguments recently heard here against immediate rail transit development were precisely the same arguments made in Dallas over twenty years ago - arguments that forestalled the development of Dallas Area Rapid Transit's rail system for far too many years. Were they right? Leaders of many of the North Texas suburbs that fought DART Rail like mad dogs are now lined up at DART's door - hats in hands - pleading for service - service that probably won't be available to them for 20 years. The areas that supported and now have the service are moving ahead. But the DFW Metroplex isn't the only place rail development is underway. Less-dense western metros like Phoenix, Albuquerque and Little Rock are also now developing various rail transit options. There's more to rail transit than relatively high startup cost, electric "light rail." (See article at the bottom of this page.)

Intelligent redevelopment of the OKC Union Station facility as a transport center for the state could catapult us into a very competitive position by the end of this decade. The destruction of this facility clearly threatens to drop us 50 years behind our neighbors in transportation development.

In 1996, state transport czar Neal McCaleb told us we faced $11 billion in "unfunded highway maintenance need" on existing state roads. Despite the vaunted "billion dollar highway bill" he persuaded us to fund purportedly to help fix that problem, current ODOT Director Gary Ridley some time back insisted that bringing our roads up to acceptable standards now would cost $40 billion. That's 264% growth of unfunded highway maintenance need in around six years - and the problem is clearly accelerating. That's an awful lot of "water in the boat" to start "throwing away lifeboats" right now, wouldn't you say?

We can seize this opportunity to time and cost-effectively move ahead or we can allow the short sighted and self-interested to make it impossible for us even to follow. We can insist that our "ship" have "lifeboats" - or we can allow the "lifeboats" we HAVE to be thoughtlessly cast away by those whose buckets are already manifestly too small to bail out the water that is increasingly flooding our vessel. It's our choice - but we'd better make it very soon.

The unnecessary destruction of the Oklahoma City Union Station rail plant is irresponsible. It needs to be stopped.

Tom Elmore
North American Transportation Institute
Tel: 405 794 7163


Some have talked at length about "the unacceptably high cost of establishing commuter rail and other rail transit services" in central Oklahoma.

Look at this web site for Colorado Rail Car Company out of Denver detailing some of their new commuter rail technology:

Yes - $2 million isn't cheap - but it's a lot cheaper than repaving one mile of interstate highway. Rigs like the Colorado Rail Car DMU could use existing rail lines and a facility like OKC Union Station - NOW. There are also less expensive cars of this type - like the elegant Budd Rail Diesel Cars now being used by the Trinity Railway Express between Dallas and Ft. Worth - http://www.trinityrailwayexpress.org/traininfo.html

Fully refurbished Budd Rail Diesel Cars from Canada are reportedly about to be made available at prices starting below $1 million each. Effective rail transit development simply does not have to be based entirely on relatively high startup-cost, all-new, electric "light rail." The prospects for nearly dirt-cheap development of OKC Union Station and its rail lines have never been plumbed - certainly not by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.