Trainspotting

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When the Oklahoma Department of Transportation awarded a bid in March to replace Interstate 244’s westbound Arkansas River bridge with a double-decker structure, many hailed the planned $64 million project. After all, the bridge had been constructed in 1967, is considered structurally deficient, and with its eastbound twin, still carries more than 50,000 cars on average per day.

But perhaps fewer noted the details of the composition of the bottom lane of the bridge, slated for completion in 2013. Rail infrastructure for both high-speed rail and commuter light rail is included in the plans.

“We’re designing for the next 75 years so why not be ready for high-speed rail?” says ODOT director of engineering David Streb.

“That bridge is anticipated to be part of a high-speed system. It will also be ready in case light rail (is ever developed in Tulsa).”

The introduction of high-speed rail to Oklahoma, though, remains elusive. After missing out on a piece of a huge cash pie made available by the federal government, the state is taking baby steps in the process of long-term planning.

“In 2001, 10 high-speed corridors were designated nationally including the south-central corridor (connecting Texas and Oklahoma),” Streb explains. “But after the designation, nothing happened. There was no funding, and even though Oklahoma conducted some studies, nothing else was done.”

“True high-speed rail would have a top speed of 150 miles per hour.”

However, the Obama administration announced plans for a national high-speed rail program and made funds available to state governments.

“Oklahoma submitted a proposal for its part of the south central rail corridor,” Streb says.

The proposal called for billions of dollars in operational improvements on the Heartland Flyer – Amtrak’s Oklahoma City to Fort Worth route – as well as creation of a true high-speed line connecting Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

Streb explains the difference between emerging high-speed rail and the true high-speed rail coveted by many today.

“Emerging means trains run on existing rail that is shared with cargo rail,” he says. “For example, the Heartland Flyer’s top speed is 79 miles per hour. True high-speed rail, such as was proposed to connect Tulsa and Oklahoma City would be on new rail, wouldn’t be shared with cargo and would have a top speed of 150 miles per hour.”

Oklahoma appears to be a logical market for rail if the success of the Heartland Flyer is any gauge.

“Ridership on the Flyer continues to grow and to be strong,” says Marc Magliari, Chicago-based spokesman for Amtrak.

“Our last full one-year period for which we have statistics shows ridership up 11 percent over the previous year. From October 2010 to February 2011, there has also been an 8.8 percent increase in ridership for the period.”

Magliari explains that the Heartland Flyer is funded by the states of Oklahoma and Texas, but that another state government might end up participating as well.

“Kansas is studying a plan to extend the Flyer to Newton, Kan., or to Kansas City,” he says. “Or they might look at separate trains connecting. The three states are talking about it.”

Unfortunately, despite the increasing popularity of Oklahoma’s existing passenger rail route, the state’s proposal for federal high-speed rail development funds was denied and the money went to other states, Streb says.

Efforts to raise smaller sums of federal money for specific efforts were more successful.

“We applied for funding to do an environmental impact study and research the impact of an Oklahoma City to Tulsa route and also to do a services development plan – basically a feasibility study,” Streb says.

The proposal was approved and the state awaits receipt of the funds.

Secondly, Oklahoma was also awarded $1 million for minor switch improvements to the Heartland Flyer route that will improve travel time slightly. Texas, meanwhile, was also awarded funding for its side of Heartland Flyer, and planned improvements there are expected to take a full 15 minutes off the route time.

Third, and arguably most importantly, Oklahoma has just launched its effort to create a comprehensive state rail plan.

“States are actually required to do it and we have just completed our first outreach meetings,” Streb says.

The state rail study is expected to take approximately 36 months and is not specifically focused on high-speed rail.

“Passenger rail is just one component of the state rail plan,” Streb says.

He adds that the state is likely to get a consulting engineer on board for the Oklahoma City to Tulsa route study, and that there will be a series of meetings in communities around the state.

“We’ve done a lot of engineering but we haven’t looked yet at the environmental impact and we haven’t really looked at the impact on communities,” he says.

Streb adds that residents should expect to hear about public meetings as Oklahoma forges ahead with its master rail plan preparation and also with its now-funded study of a potential Oklahoma City-Tulsa high-speed connection.

What Oklahomans shouldn’t expect is high-speed rail tracks to be set in the earth any time soon.

“We’re still a long way from having high-speed rail,” Streb says. “There has been a lot of talk about it and many states are pursuing it because the federal government had money available for it.”

He adds that he doesn’t know if Washington will offer another round of funding for high-speed rail in the future.

“We think it is in our best interest to be prepared so if federal funds become available again, we’re ready to move forward in the best interest of the state,” he says.

Amtrak isn’t making any predictions either.

“The president said his goal is to have 80 percent of the population (serviced) by high-speed rail, but I don’t think the map looks like that will be the case as it stands now,” Magliari says.

 

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