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A Streetcar to the Future?

by Steve Lackmeyer Published: July 27, 2013


Let’s start off with the easy part of this post: the MAPS 3 transit citizens committee this week seemed to unite around one route for the streetcar system. And if it were that simple, we would be anticipating the map shown above as being one step closer to becoming reality.

But when it comes to MAPS 3, it seems very little is simple.

So let’s back up.

The past couple of weeks have been very busy, and I’m still trying to catch up. So much is going on with downtown development, a new tower, the debate over Stage Center, tantalizing hints at what is ahead with the block owned by Nicholas Preftakes, the debate over the city’s effort to tear down the old Film Exchange Building in Core to Shore, the Core to Shore park, and of course, the streetcar system.

The list goes on and on. And there is so much for the community to monitor. This is the sort of environment when buildings suddenly disappear, when controversial designs are quietly slipped through City Hall, and deals hoping to escape public scrutiny take place.

And the back door discussions, those times when four city council members meet at once to avoid violation of the Open Meetings Act, oh yes, those happen too.

So stick with me. I’ll do my best to get it all out, via this blog, OKC Central, social media, my column and reporting.

Let’s start with the streetcar system. The MAPS 3 streetcar subcommittee met, and one of the more interesting topics discussed was the recommendation concerning a long desired Adventure Line to link Bricktown and the Adventure District (Science Museum Oklahoma, Oklahoma City Zoo, Remington Park, American Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, Firefighters Museum, Lincoln Park Golf Course, Tinseltown Theater).

You can read that story here.

But other matters were discussed as well.

Jacobs Engineering revealed the results of surveys done at a recent streetcar town hall meeting. Note, the meeting didn’t go too well, and several who attended dismissed it as more of a sales job that stifled discussion than an actual forum.

Engineers collected 89 survey answers that evening.

It’s a bit interesting to consider that these surveys were not done earlier. At least one person attending the streetcar meeting this week argued the sample, done at the controversial town hall meeting, was neither adequate nor reliable.

The results:

When asked about the importance of connecting to the park, 43 percent said it was not important, 33 said it was somewhat important, and 24 percent said it was very important.

When asked about the importance of connecting to Automobile Alley, 53 percent said it was very important, 17 percent said it was not important, and 30 percent said it was somewhat important.

When asked whether it was important of connecting to the transit center, 52 percent said it was very important, 31 percent said it was somewhat important, 17 percent said it was not important.

So why is this information important, or at least important if done right? Oklahoma City does not have the money to connect to every major part of downtown. So some areas will be winners, some will be losers.

But does it also weigh into what kind of route is chosen? The consultants say they looked at both a couplet and a duel track approach, and have consistently urged the city to go with a couplet.

As mentioned on this blog previously, transit officials I spoke to during a trip earlier this year to Kansas City spoke about how they chose to go with the duel track, which basically means you have two tracks placed next to each other that provides people a chance to go in either direction.

On Automobile Alley, a likely part of whatever route is chosen, that would mean passengers could travel south or north on the same street.

The couplet system, as planned out by Jacobs in most of the options given to the city, places just one direction of track on Broadway with a track going in the opposite direction one block west along Robinson Avenue.

This is the sort of approach used in Portland, Oregon, which has been frequently mentioned as a model for implementation of a modern streetcar system.

Back in Kansas City, one planner I spoke to (not an advocate, but actually a city official working on ramping up their new system) was familiar with Oklahoma City and warned the couplet will be a poor choice because it will confuse potential passengers.

This concern was brought up this week, and the response by Jacobs Engineering was that the cost of doing the couplet is not more than the duel track, that more areas are touched this way, and good signage should prevent confusion.

There are so many considerations going into route selection and so much debate about the streetcars themselves. Consider the uproar that occurred when I reported on Larry Nichols’ concerns about a streetcar system that he fears could be ugly and noisy. Supporters of the streetcar system respond the noisy fears can be easily addressed – especially if it’s the modern streetcar powered by overhead lines.

But Nichols is objecting to any streetcar system with such overhead lines. Some suggest his opinion is influenced by the sight of older systems and that he hasn’t seen the minimal wiring involved with modern streetcars like those in Portland.

It’s true that others have reported Nichols’ concerns in the past, but his recent comments were the first public indication by Nichols about his true thoughts. Rick Cain, who has been involved in discussing rail based passenger transit for Oklahoma City longer than anyone else in the room, explained that the technology for fueling streetcars without such wiring exists, but is in the embryonic stage.

And what if the streetcars were fueled by compressed natural gas? Advocates respond such systems crank out the very sort of noise that concerned Nichols.

Jane Jenkins, a member of the MAPS 3 streetcar committee, dropped another bombshell when she reported yet another discussion had taken place among members of the Automobile Alley Association. She advised she talked the board out of taking an official stance against the streetcars with the caveat she would report their concerns to the streetcar committee.

At some point, there seems to be a disconnect. Because if the truth is told, the young professionals seeking to live, work and play downtown are overwhelmingly pro-streetcar. And the students set to move downtown with the OCU law school also are reported by none other than Leslie Batchelor, attorney for the Urban Renewal Authority, as being very excited about having a streetcar pass their new campus at the old Central High at NW 7 and Robinson.

So the question is, are we building a city for those who are in their 40s (like me) to people in their 70s (like Nichols) and those in between (most of those on the Automobile Alley Association board)?

Or are we building a city for the young professionals, students and young families bringing life to downtown via its shops and restaurants, festivals (H&8th), outdoor movies and concerts at the Myriad Gardens and recreation along the Oklahoma River?

It’s an awkward question to ask, because quite frankly, it’s that first group that has really given downtown a boost via generous investment. But without that second group, the investment takes no life.

Both groups share the same ideals and dreams. It’s the aesthetics that seem to be rub.

There’s more intrigue I’ll address in a separate blog post. But for now, ponder all these questions. I’m not suggesting one side is right and one side is wrong.

Think about it.


by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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