Thursday, June 4, 2009

Critical thoughts on COTPA's leadership of the Maps III transit initiative


Everywhere I turn on the web, from Steve's blog, Blair Humphrey's blog, OkMet, OKC Talk, and everywhere else, I can't help but notice the consensus that a downtown transit system has been replaced by anything and everything else. For the last two years the mayor has been campaigning for light rail, using the issue as the centerpiece of his civic initiative to make OKC more pedestrian-friendly, even lamenting the issue of streets built for cars, not people. I always thought he was spot on, and many of us had thought he had been turned into a rail advocate.

Undoubtedly I think we were wrong.. it seems that Mayor Mick is a pragmatic politician after all. When the public current seemed to favor light rail above any other potential initiative, we saw the mayor talk about how badly OKC needs something different for its transit system. Now that the business community has gotten serious about the convention center and the river, there's a lot of suspicion that transit has been relegated to the bottom of the food chain.

In many ways, it has been. Mayor Mick and the Chamber folks didn't necessarily put together a list that pushed transit towards the bottom of priorities. Instead what they did, whether as an intentional slight or not, was put COTPA in charge of the initiative. This means that the same people who have been running every transit proposal into the ground for the last two decades are now inflicting their usual incompetence on another great idea.

Two decades ago when city leaders embarked to put together Maps I, Ron Norrick initially wanted the proposition to include a downtown fixed transit system (I'm not sure if it was streetcar or light rail, but I think light rail, if I remember right). I was probably in 1st grade in Galveston, TX back when Maps I was passed, but from what I've heard and read, it was a combination of bad project management and former Congressman Ernest Istook's hidden agenda that killed the idea of light rail in OKC during the 1990s. Just think..if someone had been a better project manager, or had Ernest Istook not been taking money from the Oklahoma highway lobby..OKC would have had light rail before many of the cities that are now light years ahead of us. Like Dallas. They've ran the city bus system into the ground. If you disagree, try to make sense of their website for routes and schedules, etc. They've wreaked havoc on the downtown streetscape with their unsightly public garages that have ruined the look and feel of much of downtown. Essentially, where there is failure in downtown OKC, COTPA has usually been right behind it.

Many other blogs have been reporting that COTPA's transit initiative has been underwhelming city leaders, at best. This at the same time as fabulous presentations on Mike Knopp's proposal for more Oklahoma River investment, the business community wholly behind the convention center proposal, the Bricktown community behind an extension of the canal, and the bio community behind the idea of a new bio research facility in the medical district. Everyone has proved without a doubt that their project is worthy of Maps III funding except COTPA. They've officially ran out of ideas, ran out of steam, ran the downtown streetcar intitiative into the ground, and now they need to be ran out of town.

COTPA needs to be replaced with something else. A temporary solution is for the City to recognize Jeff Bezdek's Modern Transit Project group as the leadership behind the transit issue. It seems like a no-brainer. This group has passion, is personally invested in the issue (as downtown residents), they have new blood and new ideas, and they have done an excellent job of marketing what they are all about. Nobody can say they have no idea what they're proposing. They've clearly defined their project as STREETCAR, not LIGHT RAIL. They've done research and proposed a cost, they've proposed a route, and they've also done a brilliant job of integrating the streetcar project with other sustainability goals, by proposing that locally-harvested wind power be used to power the system. They've defined environmental benefits, sustainable benefits, health benefits, transit benefits, and urban benefits. They've also defined benefits from a regional competition standpoint, by comparing OKC to every other NBA city. Almost all of which have fixed rail systems.

If this private group were given the chance to make presentations alongside Knopp and the convention center boosters, they would knock the socks off of attendees, and we would see a downtown streetcar system be a virtual guarantee as a part of Maps III. If we continue to let the "know-how" at COTPA dictate the transit initiative, we will end up with no fixed transit system, and merely some token bus upgrades. It is better in the short-term, and the long-term, if slowly COTPA's responsibilities get moved over to other more captivating entities and COTPA is phased out.

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