Fight heats up as OKC-Tulsa passenger rail decision draws near

Fight heats up as OKC-Tulsa passenger rail decision draws near

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A fight over a 97 mile stretch of rail may soon reach an end, with a recommendation looming from the state cabinet secretaries.

But before they publicly announce their plan, demonstrators pull together another effort to sway the decision.

"No sale of state-owned rail," cried ralliers at the Capitol Wednesday.

A handful of demonstrators arrived to call for the rail line between Oklahoma City and Tulsa to remain in ODOT's hands.

Proponents decked out old rail cars in February to give people a taste of passenger rail on the Sooner Sub line.

But after a flurry of interest from private firms, five state cabinet secretaries are seriously weighing two-bids from companies who want to buy.

"It's like comparing it to the housing boom where prices are going through the roof and somebody wants to grab your house at discount bargain basement prices," said Rep. Richard Morrissette (D-OKC) at the rally.

He says the rail is a valuable asset that the state should keep. Other organizers express concern about losing state control over the line.
 
"As long as the state owns it, the citizens can say we want four round trips a day passenger rail, we want six round trips a day," Tulsa Passenger Rail Advisory Committee leader Rick Westcott said.

Ralliers said they're scared that if the tracks go private only freight will travel between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and that the dream of passenger rail would end.

ODOT spokesperson Terri Angier said that is a simple case of misinformation.

"To say that if the department doesn't own this rail line it hurts passenger rail is absolutely not true," she said.

She pointed out the only passenger rail currently in the state services passengers on a non-state owned line between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.

And in the Condition of Sale for the Sooner Sub rail line, ODOT's proposal calls for any interested parties to include "passenger rail operations if determined feasible," and asks for details regarding passenger rail options in the business plan.

"The way the proposal is written, if it doesn't include passenger rail it will not be a viable bid," Angier said.

The one thing both sides of this argument can agree on is the positive impact of passenger rail. Westcott cited studies that showed the Heartland Flyer attracts an economic impact of $3.50 for every $1 spent.

"It's not that we think it (economic development) might happen, it's been proven to happen all over the country," he said, "it's safe, easy, alternative form of transportation."

Cabinet secretaries will present their recommendation May 5. They could recommend one or none of the bids. According to ODOT they could also recommend additional requirements, such as added language guaranteeing passenger rail in a certain form.

The Transportation Commission then will decide whether to accept the recommendation or continue with a different option.
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