THE long-held vision of restoring passenger rail service to more cities in Oklahoma seems far from reality. Will Oklahoma City and Tulsa ever be linked?
Perhaps a better question is this: Will Oklahoma City continue to be linked via Amtrak with Fort Worth? The answer turns on the willingness of a frugal Republican-controlled state government to subsidize a service that loses $43 per passenger before the train leaves the station.
While highway improvements are always front and center to motorists, developments in the rail industry are much less visible. But here are just some of the more significant developments in recent weeks:
Negotiations to acquire the Santa Fe train depot in Oklahoma City show that government officials and the structure's owners are far apart in what they think the property is worth.
Passengers taking the Heartland Flyer from here to Fort Worth are surprised to find that boarding the train doesn't involve a traditional depot experience. The Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority may use the power of eminent domain to acquire the property, a step toward returning the depot to a true rail-based transit hub.
The state is negotiating to sell the nearly 100 miles of train track between Oklahoma City and Sapulpa.
This is the line that would link Tulsa and the capital city if passenger rail is restored. The state bought the line to prevent its abandonment at a time when railroads were consolidating and curtailing freight services. Returning the trackage to private ownership wouldn't derail future passenger service — the state would require accommodation of such service as a condition of the sale — but upgrades needed for passenger trains would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Heartland Flyer fares well in comparison with many Amtrak routes in terms of how much money it loses.
This is a bad news, good news story: The route lost $43 per rider in 2012, but this is a lot less than most Amtrak routes are losing. Only four Amtrak routes didn't lose money last year.
Estimates vary on what it would take to link Oklahoma City with Tulsa and beyond. For true high-speed rail, track improvements could cost up to $2 billion. Slower service would cost less, yet any train run that takes twice as long to reach Tulsa from here as it does to drive the Turner Turnpike likely would find few ticket takers once the novelty wears off.
On the other hand, all of us pay for rail improvements and train service in other parts of the country. This is not unlike the argument we hear about Medicaid expansion: Oklahomans are paying for it through federal taxes, so why turn down “free” federal money for expansion?
In some ways, the passenger rail conversation is a microcosm of a raging debate over fiscal sanity. Budget hawks see no justification for subsidies for ethanol, wind energy, rail service — you name it and the purists don't like it. But federal, state and local governments subsidize other forms of transportation.
The state has been spending $2 million a year to keep the Heartland Flyer. Amtrak subsidies in general and the Heartland Flyer subsidy in particular pose a dilemma for those who believe government should stick to core functions. The Oklahoman is in that category. We believe that while we can live without Amtrak service, its loss would be a blow to the quality of life and to economic development.
Linking Oklahoma City's passenger train depot with more cities is a worthy goal. Unfortunately for rail fans, that goal must wait on a side track while more important priorities get the green light.