BY DAVID PERRYMAN
My first train ride was during the Vietnam War. It was a short ride from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Siloam Springs, Arkansas. I remember that it was during the war because the train was also pulling a freight car transporting the body of an American soldier killed in southeast Asia.
The train ride was really a kind of novelty trip. One of those “you better go now, because you won’t be able to for long.” Sure enough, a few months later, passenger service ended and only freight trains remained on the railroad tracks in Oklahoma.
Through the years, I have ridden several commuter rail, subways, elevated light rail and excursion trains, but no more in Oklahoma until the Heartland Flyer began running between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.
There are a lot of reasons that passenger rail became a thing of the past in our state. Part of the reason was cheap 22 cent gas and cheap cars with no mandatory insurance requirements and the absolute convenience of not having to deal with anyone else’s schedule. We developed a mindset that makes us leave for trips or appointments at the absolute last minute to be able to get to a destination on time…or only a few minutes late.
As a result, we rank 4th in the nation in per capita gasoline consumption, driving an average of nearly 13,000 miles per year for every man, woman and child. Even with the 5th lowest fuel tax per gallon of gasoline, Oklahoma drivers annually send around 510 Million Dollars to Washington Fortunately, we get back around 675 Million Dollars per year in general highway funds. On average, that is about $1.31 in highway funds for every dollar that we pay in federal fuel taxes.
But the story does not end there. A fund that we come up short in is the mass transit fund, sometimes called the Surface Transportation Fund. Oklahoma is a donor state and actually subsidizes mass transit in places like New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.
Today, a lot has changed since passenger rail service ended. Gas is now 17 to 20 times more expensive often nearing $4.00 per gallon. Automobiles and auto maintenance and tires are no longer inexpensive and mandatory liability insurance stretches and tests the affordability of automobile ownership by many Oklahomans.
However, geographically, because of the distance that people must travel for work or doctors, they must have access to a vehicle. Most job applications ask about the availability of transportation. A mass transit rider’s mindset requires planning and forethought
While a statewide passenger rail system would be the ultimate goal, a line connecting the Oklahoma City metro with the Tulsa Metro and Lawton-Fort Sill would provide the backbone of a transit system through the state’s major centers of population. Ideally, such a rail line already exists. The Stillwater Central Railroad stretches, among other locations, from Tulsa through Oklahoma City, by Will Rogers International Airport and all the way to Lawton-Fort Sill and points west.
Two questions must be answered, is funding available to begin a passenger service and are Oklahomans ready to incorporate a mindset that deals requires them to incorporate transit schedules into the planning of their day.
If so, commuter costs would be decreased. Removing vehicles from the roads and highways would extend the life of roadways. Pollution would likely decrease and another possible benefit of mass transit would be a potential decrease in the number of uninsured vehicles on the road.
A part of the puzzle is the proverbial question of the chicken and the egg. Mass transit planners cannot expect full train cars as soon as the routes and schedules are planned. Rail schedules must be established in such a way as to entice ridership.
The future of passenger rail in Oklahoma, particularly along the I-44 corridor between Tulsa and Lawton is an ideal subject for study. That is why I have requested an interim study on this subject so that the concept and the cost as well as the potential benefit may be studied this between now and the 2014 legislative session.
With a little foresight and proper planning, we may soon be hearing, “All aboard on the Thunder Express.” Mind the gap.