Oklahoma City has become a symbol of success nationally and one of hope for other municipalities in their struggle to overcome high jobless rates and low revenue growth. In the early 1990s, the citizens of Oklahoma City set a course and have never looked back. Citizens' self-investment through taxation showed the nation that we're serious about building quality-of-life amenities for the success of future generations.
As Oklahoma City continues its resurgence, we look to other world-class cities for inspiration and wisdom. Comprehensive public transportation contrasts Oklahoma City from those very cities we all admire. The startling condition of public transit in Oklahoma City, and the state, is a blemish on the successes we claim.
Carrying nearly 10,000 riders a day, public transit patrons are the hardworking service workers, nurses, teachers and laborers upon whom we rely every day. According to a 2011 study, 68 percent rate METRO Transit bus service positively — despite infrequent service, long waits and the need for several transfers. In that same study, 60 percent of residents who don't use public transit “strongly agree that money spent on public transit is a good investment.”
In 2005, the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority (COTPA) commissioned a study to develop a regional plan for enhanced bus and rail lines. Numerous public meetings were held, with hundreds in attendance. This study has since been adopted as COTPA's Fixed Guideway Plan. COTPA has held a series of forums to engage the public on the development of a modern streetcar system. A transit service analysis is in its final stages, with a report due in June.
Now is the time to outline solid strategies for reaching the goals. To do this, a new reliable funding source is needed. In 2005, the projected cost for implementing only the enhanced bus portion of the Fixed Guideway Study was an annual operating budget of $60 million. Compare this to COTPA's current operating budget of $24.4 million (52 percent coming from the city's general fund) and you'll see that we're far from the mark. The solutions that will take us to a big-league transit service would require, at minimum, a quarter- to half-cent tax (on a county/regional level) to achieve the transit levels we all desire.
We only have to look down the road at Dallas to see a city that's invested in public transit with a dedicated sales tax of 1 cent. Dallas has a strong bus system, expanding light rail, regional commuter rail and a new streetcar system.
It's time to lay the groundwork for an equally impressive public transit system in Oklahoma City, but it will take leadership, commitment and action at all levels to make it happen.
Semtner is a COTPA trustee.