It’s hard to picture getting around in Oklahoma City without a car, but Mayor Mick Cornett said he believes that will change. Cornett said the $130 million public transit piece of MAPS 3 is all about what the city can do to prepare for a future in which a car won’t be the only way to get around. A streetcar system and a downtown transit hub linking buses, the streetcar and rail lines are the city’s first step toward that future, Cornett said.
Opening steps to railWhen the city surveyed residents in 2007 about what they’d like to see in MAPS 3, transit was the No. 1 suggestion by a wide margin. Leaving transit out of the $777 million MAPS 3 proposal wasn’t an option, but Cornett said transit means different things to different people. "The problem was making sure that whatever we did in the long term helped transit,” Cornett said. "You could make a mistake and try to do too many things or do something poorly and it could doom transit for the future.” The city participated in a years-long study that determined all the possible transit needs for the metro area. Among the suggestions were enhanced bus service, commuter rail, a streetcar and other options. The city has begun the process of going after federal transit money for commuter rail lines connecting downtown to Tinker Air Force Base as well as to both Edmond and Norman. The city is also pursuing the idea of high speed rail, which could connect it to Dallas, Tulsa, Kansas City and the rest of the country. Including commuter rail in MAPS 3 brings up problems, though. For one, such a system is incredibly expensive. Federal transit money can help, but nothing is guaranteed, and city leaders didn’t want to include projects in MAPS 3 that would require federal funds to complete. Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman said the streetcar and the downtown transit hub are a way to prepare the city for those bigger ideas. "I don’t see any of this without the transit hub,” Bowman said. "To me it is the most important piece of the MAPS initiative.”
Legitimate transitCornett said if people come to Oklahoma City on a rail line, they won’t have a car when they get here. "The idea is a very measured, a very logical and strategic first step, a downtown streetcar that we can use to get visitors to our attractions, get workers to their jobs and get the people who choose to live downtown the opportunity to live here without having a car,” Cornett said. Jeff Bezdek, who has lived downtown for nine years, is the chairman of the Modern Transit Project, a group that began advocating for a downtown streetcar before MAPS 3 was announced. Bezdek said he latched on to the idea when he went to Portland, Ore., on a business trip. "I experienced their fantastic streetcar system firsthand,” Bezdek said. "When you ride in one of these things, it’s comfortable, it’s air conditioned. It’s made of glass so you can see the city. I saw people getting on with their bicycles.” The streetcar system proposed in Oklahoma City isn’t like the historic streetcars in San Francisco and New Orleans. "The modern streetcars are much more comfortable,” Bezdek said. "They are quieter. They hold more people, and they are ADA accessible without the use of an elevator. And they are much more efficient.” Bezdek said other cities that have put in a modern streetcar have seen a 10-to-1 investment by the private sector along the streetcar’s route. The streetcar would be electrically powered and would travel on fixed rails. Plans call for five to six miles of streetcar line. A specific route has not been chosen, but Cornett said he favors a "spoke and hub” system that would function as legitimate transit rather than a loop that would only really serve tourists. A spot for the transit hub hasn’t been chosen either, although it will likely be located along the existing Amtrak rail line that runs through downtown, Cornett said. Bezdek said the important thing is that the city is finally doing something about its mass transit needs. "The idea is to put a down payment on this regional system and be able to apply for and procure federal dollars,” Bezdek said. "The easiest way to get to the top of the list is to show that your community is committed to a mass transit plan.”