Mass transportation in Tulsa might soon be a revived memory.
The Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority commissioned a preliminary feasibility study earlier this year to determine whether a bus rapid transit or commuter rail between Broken Arrow and downtown Tulsa would be worth Tulsans’ tax dollars.
At the same time, Tulsa city councilor Rick Westcott has proposed an Amtrak line from Tulsa to Oklahoma City to local civic leaders and the public for consideration.
The No. 1 way public transportation plans for Tulsa will help the community is by providing a way for people to get to and from work, according to William Cartwright, MTTA CEO.
“There are many people who for one reason or another can no longer drive,” Cartwright said. “There is an economic development issue there because those people have money to spend. We’d like them to get out and spend it in the community. Public transit allows them to do that.”
Work Force in Transit
According to the most recent MTTA rider survey, over 60 percent of current riders use the transit to commute to and from work.
“That percentage is a little higher than the national average,” Cartwright said. “We’re just a bit more transit-dependent than most communities.”
According to U.S. Census data, about 30,000 people work in downtown Tulsa. Roughly 5,000 people in and around Broken Arrow commute to downtown for work, Cartwright said.
“That’s a pretty large pool of people,” Cartwright said. “I don’t know what number makes a plan like this feasible, but we have to look at what terms we base our judgment on. Is it purely economic? Socioeconomic, environmental or congestion problems? All partly.”
So far, locals are in favor of a bus rapid transit line or commuter rail service between Broken Arrow and Tulsa.
“The reaction people have had here in Broken Arrow is positive,” said Farhad Deroga, Broken Arrow city planner. “People want to know more about it.”
“To have an easy, convenient connection between BA and Tulsa, I think, is going to be tremendous for both our business owners and our residents,” said Keith Sterling, director of communications for the city of Broken Arrow. “With more businesses coming into Broken Arrow, we want to get folks down here. The easier we can make that process, the better.”
Deroga encourages citizens who are interested in learning more about the transit proposal to attend future public hearings, which according to Timothy Schmidt of Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, the Dallas-based firm conducting the feasibility study, should take place soon after the first of the year.
“It would be interesting for people to show up and participate in those hearings,” Deroga said.
Cartwright said there hasn’t been a spark of interest in implementing mass transit systems in Tulsa. Indeed, it’s been a slow burn.
“This question has been asked since the ’80s,” Cartwright said. “There has been a desire – there just hasn’t been any funding.”
The money to pay for the $90,000 feasibility study comes from a federal grant that comes through the state and INCOG to MTTA annually. Tulsa Transit elected to use 2006 funds to help pay for the study. The rest of the funds come from the state.
Tax dollars are needed to implement any type of public transit expansion, including that proposed for the Broken Arrow corridor. At this early stage, however, Cartwright said there is no organized movement against using Tulsans’ tax dollars for commuter transit expansion.
“I think it’s too early for opposition,” Cartwright said. “If this goes to the next level where we need to propose a tax increase or whatever to pay for it, that’s when we’ll see the organized opposition.”
The final report on whether a new mode of commuter transit will be feasible for Tulsa is due from the Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam office by March.
On Dec. 8, Tulsa city councilor Rick Westcott hosted a conference downtown to educate local officials and business leaders on past studies of passenger service in Tulsa.
“The panel talked to folks and told them what’s been done, and what it would take to bring Amtrak back to Tulsa,” Westcott said.
Westcott is known for being pro-railroad, and he hopes to find enough support in the state legislature to make Tulsa a stopping point on an expanding Amtrak line.
“When I talk with people about bringing the train back to Tulsa, their eyes light up,” Westcott said.
To extend the Amtrak service from Oklahoma City, which now bears south to Fort Worth and then connects to Amtrak lines that cross-cross the country, would cost roughly $130 million. That money would be used to standardize the existing line between Tulsa and Oklahoma City for passenger service.
“The state owns its Amtrak line, which would help a bit. And compared to the price of a new turnpike, it’s not that much. But it’s still a ton of money,” Westcott said.
According to Westcott, Amtrak is preparing to study the feasibility of reinstating the Amtrak line between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The study will be paid for by a combination of Oklahoma Department of Transportation and INCOG funds. The study should be completed within the next four months, Westcott said.
The most important reason to have passenger rail service in Tulsa is economic development, Westcott said.
“If you look around the country where there are train stations, there is economic development around them. There are office buildings, businesses and commercial development, usually within easy walking distance of the station. I think it’s a necessary tool to the revitalization of downtown,” Westcott said.
On board with the push for Amtrak, Cartwright said, “it would be an adjunct to local transit. We would plan it to coordinate with the public transportation system already in place in Tulsa.”
Transit for Tulsa Now
Other mass-transit plans in the works include a short-range trolley service and transit-merchant partnerships.
A trolley system running from the central business district to shopping centers would be a huge boost to the local economy, Cartwright said.
Cartwright and Cynthia Staab, assistant general manager of MTTA, said they are in touch with local businesses about helping to put a trolley downtown that could take workers to shopping venues like Brookside, Cherry Street or Utica Square.
“The merchants in those areas would directly benefit from this service,” Cartwright said.
Though grant money is available for the purchase of the trolleys, operating funding remains elusive.
“We’ve talked with people, but we could never get enough traction to make this happen,” Cartwright said. “Everyone thinks it’s a very good idea and that it needs to happen. We just don’t have the nuts and bolts as to how to make it work.”
MTTA will launch the EZ Rider program in January, which will offer transit riders the benefits of a transit-merchant partnership. The program will allow riders to use their valid bus passes to get discounts with participating merchants.
“We’ve signed up quite a few merchants,” Cartwright said. “Now you won’t have to cut coupons out of the phone book – you’ll have your transit pass that you’re using anyway, and you’ll just show it to a participating merchant to get their discount.”
In addition to these programs, MTTA has invested in new bus shelters, benches, and has one of the newest bus fleets in the country. MTTA has also put marketing dollars toward overcoming the stigma some Tulsans associate with public transit.
“The level of service on the street per capita in Tulsa is lower than in any other city in the Midwest, that I’m aware of,” Cartwright said. “We just have not supported public transportation.
“Until we as a community support public transportation at a level that it should be supported, it’s going to have those perception problems.” ?
Mass transportation in Tulsa might soon be a revived memory.