A $13.6 million federal grant and a favorable ruling on the eminent domain effort to acquire the Santa Fe Depot are giving transit planners plenty of reason to celebrate this week.
Both announcements were made Thursday, but the celebrations won't last long as the city now faces a 2016 deadline to finish conversion of the depot into a transit hub.
The $13.6 million is the 10th-highest award among 52 grants totaling $474 million issued by the U.S. Transportation Department as part of its Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program.
With matching funds of $11.3 million approved by voters as part of MAPS 3, $1.5 million from the Oklahoma Transportation Department, and $2 million from the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, the city will have $28 million to pursue its full vision for the depot.
“We got everything we asked for,” Mayor Mick Cornett said. “This is exciting news. It allows us to address the streetscape on E.K. Gaylord, Amtrak service at the depot, and our plans for the hub. It should allow for a first-class upgrade of the building and the streets around it.”
Efforts to obtain such funding date back to the city's fixed guideway study in 2005 — before the 2009 passage of MAPS 3.
The study envisions a hub that serves the existing Amtrak Heartland Flyer service between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, allows for expansion of that route to Kansas, and also advances efforts by Oklahoma City, Edmond, Norman and Midwest City to potentially start up a regional commuter rail system.
The award was a shock to many on Thursday at City Hall; previous attempts to get federal funding for such transit efforts had been limited to winning a $750,000 grant earlier this year to improve E.K. Gaylord in front of the depot. Other attempts to obtain funding for rail transit in the region had been unsuccessful.
“The federal policy continues to evolve,” said Cornett, who was co-chairman of both the 2005 fixed guideway study and the 2009 alternative analysis study — both deemed key steps in winning the $13.6 million. “When we put MAPS 3 in front of voters, we thought we might qualify for some federal grant.”
Jane Abraham, the city's community and government affairs manager, spent the weekend of May 31 working on the grant application at City Hall while downtown was threatened with tornadoes and flooding.
“It's a big deal for regional transportation,” Abraham said. “We get closer to that mission of getting the region connected.”
David Todd, manager of the city's MAPS 3 office, said the grant puts design and construction on the hub on a short schedule, with work to be completed in 2016.
Specific improvements include opening a tunnel in the depot through the BNSF Railway viaduct wall facing the Bricktown Canal to allow for a direct passenger connection to the entertainment district, improved Amtrak boarding platforms, ticketing and baggage areas, a pedestrian plaza extending to E.K. Gaylord, and hastened construction of a streetcar alignment in front of the depot.
Public Works Director Eric Wenger said a lot of questions remain, including whether a proposed streetcar route is approved next month by the city council.
“It gives us a really unique opportunity to get these projects designed together so they work seamlessly,” Wenger said.
The grant news coincides with notification to officials that court-appointed commissioners ruled the city owes $4.5 million to the Brewer family for the depot.
ABOUT THE TRAIN DEPOT
The Santa Fe train depot was boarded up when President Jimmy Carter ended Amtrak passenger rail service to Oklahoma in 1979. The train station was repeatedly vandalized, the ceiling caved in, and the depot became an eyesore in the next 20 years.
The late Jim Brewer bought the station in 1998 as the state was progressing in its efforts to restore passenger rail traffic. Brewer received a $1 million federal grant to renovate the station, and he agreed to provide access to Amtrak passengers under a temporary agreement that waived rent but charged the state for utilities and costs associated with use of the station.
In 2010, Brewer's son Brent locked the doors twice in the week leading up to the annual OU-Texas game in Dallas, causing travelers on Amtrak's Heartland Flyer to be diverted to vans and buses. At the time, Brewer complained state Transportation Department officials had failed to respond to his repeated efforts to draw up a new lease agreement.
The dispute ended with a lease that required the state to pay $15,297 a month for the passenger station and parking lot at the depot. The department allowed the Brewers to operate the parking lot with the two parties splitting revenues, with rates set by the Brewers. That dispute was mentioned in the successful application for the $13.6 million federal grant announced Thursday.