Larry Nichols, one of the most influential voices guiding downtown development, is preparing to oppose construction of a new streetcar system over concerns about noise and visual blight.
The $94 million streetcar was approved by voters as part of the 2009 MAPS 3 ballot, and campaign materials produced by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber at the time portrayed a system similar to the “modern streetcar” pioneered by Portland, Ore., and which is being studied by engineers hired by Oklahoma City.
The low-floor streetcars run on rails embedded in streets and share downtown traffic corridors with motorists.
The streetcars are powered by an overhead wiring system known as catenary wires that are held up by cantilevered poles that extend over the street. It's those wires that spurred Nichols' recent objections.
“I don't feel very good about them at all,” Nichols said when suggested routes were discussed at last week's Oklahoma City Urban Renewal meeting. “When you say streetcar, it depends on what kind of streetcar. If you're talking about these systems you see in older cities with overhead wires, I think that will make our city very ugly … If it involves cantilevered wires, there will be substantial opposition.”
Nichols, executive chairman of Devon Energy Corp. and chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority, attempted to strip out a route recommendation that was included in a MidTown Urban Renewal Plan.
The plan provides a list of steps to be followed for redevelopment of the neighborhood on the northwest fringe of downtown, but does not have any bearing on whether the streetcar system is constructed.
But Nichols, who is also on a committee guiding implement of the Project 180 makeover of downtown streets and public spaces, is an influential voice in matters relating to the redevelopment of the urban core.
Fellow Commissioner Jim Tolbert, who also owns property in Bricktown and the Central Business District, countered that the routes recommended in the MidTown plan are more focused on stimulating economic development.
“We're saying let's put it in areas where it will stimulate development,” Tolbert said. “That's a significant role for us to play. We're entering the debate with a suggestion.”
Nichols responded that some property owners along the eventual streetcar route may not want the tracks opposite their developments.
“Having the wrong sort of streetcar will not enhance development, it will impede it,” Nichols said. “We all have the same goal. But a noisy, ugly streetcar may be a detriment to some of these areas rather than an enhancement.”
Jane Jenkins, president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., disclosed that Nichols is not the only one with concerns, and that the Automobile Alley Association came close to voting for a resolution to oppose a streetcar route along Broadway if it included the overhead wiring system.
Leslie Batchelor, an attorney for the Urban Renewal Authority who assisted in the MidTown plan, advised Urban Renewal commissioners the streetcar system was repeatedly discussed by area residents attending public hearings.
“One of the things that has excited people the most at our meetings is the streetcar,” Batchelor said. “There are people coming in with OCU law school (which will be moving into the old Central High School) who want to see the streetcar. They have a population who don't want to be so dependent on their cars. We think there is support out there.”
As the debate over the streetcar system has continued, some people have suggested that the wires can be eliminated in some areas by using alternate power sources. Rick Cain, director of the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking System, noted such technology is in its infancy and no model exists to see whether such an alternative is truly viable.
When contacted by The Oklahoman, Mayor Mick Cornett responded that he believes some education is needed about “modern” streetcars, which are different from those built over the last couple decades and vintage-style systems like the one built in Little Rock, Ark.
One overhead wire
The first modern streetcar system was built in Portland, Ore. in 2001, and like the one being proposed in Oklahoma City, it runs on “couplets.” For Oklahoma City, that means one car might go north on Broadway while another car might travel south on Robinson, the next parallel street. With that system, only one overhead wire is needed to power the line.
“I am not sure that perceptions of cantilevered wires match up with what they are today rather than what was used decades ago,” Cornett said. “I don't think I know.”
Cornett said he understands Nichols' concerns. Nichols was a leader in setting up Project 180, and some of the streets rebuilt as part of the downtown beautification effort could be torn up again to make way for the tracks.
“We've come a long way on beautification,” Cornett said. “We don't want to backtrack.”
Having the wrong sort of streetcar will not enhance development, it will impede it. We all have the same goal. But a noisy ugly streetcar may be a detriment to some of these areas rather than an enhancement.”
Executive chairman of