The Fate of the Tracks

The future of passenger rail between the state's two major metro areas is in limbo.

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Supporters of passenger rail service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa are having trouble getting their voices heard over the noise of the project’s squealing brakes. Barring legislative intervention, it’s entirely possible that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation will sell the Sooner Subdivision line to a private company later this year. If it goes, the state’s dream of a commuter train between its two largest cities could follow.

“I think the Sooner Sub’s our best and last chance [for commuter trains]. If the line is sold, we’re at the mercy of whoever owns it. The state will lose control, and there’s a very good chance that we’d lose the possibility for reasonable passenger rail service. The best chance is for the state to maintain ownership of the line,” says Rick Westcott, a former Tulsa City Councilor and supporter of passenger rail service.

The Sooner Subdivision line – 97.85 miles of track stretching between Sapulpa and Del City – is a solid but undeveloped contender for a commuter-friendly alternative to the Turner Turnpike. Currently used exclusively for freight traffic, the line needs repairs to accommodate passengers at high speeds. But it’s better than nothing, and using it as a foundation for commuter service would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Advocates of passenger rail service claim that if the department sells the line, it totally makes passenger rail service not an option. It isn’t true,” says ODOT Public Information Manager, Brenda Perry.

Rep. Richard Morissette (D-OKC) is a longtime passenger rail fan frustrated with ODOT’s failure to seriously engage Oklahoma’s dependence on cars. His legislative career is peppered with attempts to mandate passenger rail development.

“ODOT is trying to scare everybody. They’re actively trying to get out of the rail business. ODOT is a wholly owned subsidiary of the roadbuilding lobby,” Morissette says.

The Sooner Sub has slowly fallen off the state’s agenda during the last two decades. It was purchased by the state in the 1990s in an effort to preserve it for development. Watco, a private railway, leases it. That lease was renewed for five years in 2013, and Watco is one of two bidders for ownership.

The second bidder, Burlington Northern, is interested in incorporating the Sooner Sub into a supply line for Bakken oil on its way south. The company’s inquiries fired up the state’s recent move to sell. It was Burlington Northern that sold the line to Oklahoma in the 1990s.

The price tag for line improvements isn’t small by any stretch, and there are huge disparities in the estimates. Supporters quote a figure as low as $2 million. ODOT, citing department studies, won’t go any lower than $42 million. But these are, as they say, apples and oranges. The two parties aren’t shopping in the same store, and neither figure includes ongoing upgrades as demand for service grows.

One price tag that hasn’t been thrown out lately is $0. That’s the cost of offering passenger service on the Sooner Sub in its existing condition. The trains wouldn’t be fast enough to perform duty as a serious commuter service. But they’d be faster than the Heartland Flyer, Amtrak’s daily round-trip from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth.

Commuter service has clear public support. Several city councils in the region – including representatives of potential stops along the line – have passed resolutions all but begging Gov. Mary Fallin to take privatization off the table.

“Bristow and other cities along the line would get a major boost. They’d have the opportunity to work together and market Oklahoma as the place to vacation. Can you imagine selling Tulsa and Oklahoma City as a package deal? You don’t need a car. Come check out all the things we have to offer. Fly in and take the train. Worry-free,” says Jennifer Shelton-Taylor, president of the Bristow Area Chamber of Commerce.

Iowa Pacific Holdings, a rail company ready to collaborate with the state – right now – to develop passenger service, sold tickets on excursion rail trips along the line earlier this year. All 900 tickets for the Eastern Flyer were sold within days. The trips garnered rave reviews. Or, to put it another way, not only did the train get passengers from Tulsa to Oklahoma City and back, people had fun along the way.

The Cherokee Nation definitively weighed in March. A contributor of $1.3 billion annually to Oklahoma’s economy, the nation sees the Sooner Sub as a way to bring more people to its entertainment venues. People have fun, the tribe makes money, the state collects taxes.

The state’s very official Eastern Flyer Passenger Rail Task Force heard from Tulsa’s City Council in 2012. It urged development of passenger rail service “as quickly as possible.” It even used italics in its final report. Tulsa hasn’t joined the list of cities asking Fallin to retain state ownership of the Sooner Sub. Its city council resolution was vetoed by Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett earlier this year.

The Sooner Sub is not an unused asset. It’s not just collecting dust. It’s collecting money. Its existing lease with Watco brings in $500,000 every year. Estimated sale prices for the line hover near $9 million. That’s not an impressive ROI for a moneymaker, especially if its loss means leaving passenger rail service at the station.

The line’s fate sits in the hands of five cabinet secretaries: Commerce, Finance, Agriculture, Energy and, of course, Transportation. They’ll make their recommendation for or against the sale at the May 5 meeting of the Oklahoma Transportation Commission at ODOT’s Oklahoma City headquarters.

In all fairness, a recommendation is just a recommendation. But a recommendation to sell could be the first in a series of veiled bureaucratic vanishing acts for passenger rail’s future in Oklahoma. Buyers of the Sooner Sub could offer passenger rail, but it’d be on their dime and its success would be another to-do item on a corporate task list.

Burlington Northern might call in the heavily subsidized, not-saving-you-tax-dollars Amtrak to haul people from here to there. Amtrak doesn’t offer passenger service on lines used for freight, however, and if the dollars going into Burlington Northern’s coffers flow from the Bakken fields, passengers will have to wait. In their cars.

Watco might pull in Iowa Pacific Holdings, the company behind this year’s popular Eastern Flyer excursions. But neither company will make a firm commitment to passenger service as a condition of the line’s sale.

Oklahoma’s poised to make a big decision for turnpike travelers. For now, they can only dream of an easier way to get between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. They definitely shouldn’t text about it while driving. Texting is much safer on the train.