OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Proposals for passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Tulsa are drawing support from officials in and between the state’s two largest cities — but there is no consensus on whether it should be a high-speed rail system or a traditional, much slower, rail.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation has scheduled meetings for Tuesday in Tulsa, Wednesday in Stroud and Thursday in Oklahoma City to gather public input as part of a study into establishing rail service between the cities.
In Stroud, along Interstate 44 about halfway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, City Manager Tim Schook said a commuter rail service makes more sense economically than high-speed rail, which he said would cost an estimated $2 billion.
“We have rail between the cities, granted it’s not high speed ... the state owns it,” Schook said. “It’s got too many curves in it for high speed.”
David Streb, director of engineering for ODOT, said the hearings are the first step of an environmental impact study that is the first phase of the process of studying potential passenger rail service and that any system is years away from development.
“We’re trying to get into a position to say, if we have a train, this is the best route for it,” Streb said. “If money becomes available in the future, then decision-makers in Oklahoma can decide if that’s the best path forward for the citizens.”
Streb said the FRA has designated the Tulsa-Oklahoma City corridor as one of 11 high priority rail corridors to be developed nationwide.
“The Federal Railroad Administration felt this is worthy enough to provide about $3 million for the study, which to me is a feather in Oklahoma’s cap,” Streb said.
Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett said he supports a high-speed rail connection, but added that factors other than the rail itself need to be considered.
“We also need to understand the rail system itself, once a person takes a train to a city, they need a way to get around. Cabs are not a reasonable option because they’re too expensive. So the use of passenger rail must also coincide with a reasonably good-sized bus or public transit system,” Bartlett said.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said the city has a public bus system and is developing a street car system, but said he thinks the question of passenger rail service is larger than just connecting Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
“I don’t think we should think as much about connecting with each other as with trying to connecting with larger markets,” such as Dallas, he said.
“Nationwide, there is going to be an inner city network, and we’d better make sure we are connected to those cities,” Cornett said.
Bristow Mayor Ralph Barnett agreed, saying that he supports either the high-speed or slower passenger rail concept and would ideally like to have the train stop at the depot in his city just west of Tulsa.
“You have Amtrak from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth (Texas). I’d like to join up with that,” Barnett said.
Neither Schook nor Barnett thought a non-stop rail line from Oklahoma City to Tulsa would cause much economic harm to their cities, which both sit along I-44, saying few motorists on the toll road stop because of the travel centers already in place along the interstate.
“It (the train) might make us look at it a little wistfully,” Barnett said.
Streb said most questions that people have, including projected cost, annual cost of operation and projected ridership, and whether there would be stops along the way or non-stop, have not yet been addressed and would come after the environmental impact study is completed.
Streb said the question of whether to have true high-speed rail, with speeds of up to 100 mph and a travel time between the two cities estimated at 58 minutes, the traditional rail with a travel time of two hours or more, or a hybrid version combing the two is also still very much up in the air.
State Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, is a longtime supporter of connecting the two cities by rail.
“First of all, all over the world, except in the United States, rail transportation is a given. This country at least since the 1930s has abandoned that concept,” Morrissette said. “It’s a concept that needs to be aired out. Ultimately it’s a concept that the people are going to have to decide.”