Wednesday, May 26, 2010

We Talked Transit..apparently

Sorry I am just now getting around to writing up my recap for the Let's Talk Transit meeting waaaaay back on May 11. I've just been bogged down with work and of course, fighting SandRidge and now anti-preservation moron lawmakers--the topics that have very clearly preoccupied this blog lately.

But YES, there WAS a Let's Talk Transit streetcar public forum meeting on May was held at the usual time, 6 pm in the Hall of Mirrors, Civic Center 2nd floor.

Several points from other people first, and then I'll just finish with my own thoughts that I feel are relatively important to the subject. The format of this meeting was just open mic and attendants were encouraged to take the mic and voice their concerns for the streetcar system. In order to get us fired up, Mike McAnelly shared several potential streetcar alignments which I'm not even going to mention here because I think (hope) those were just to get us talking, and not something seriously being considered.

Jeff Bezdek: Jeff conveyed several great ideas, as usual, when he took the mic so I am going to start with him. The most important idea that he conveyed, as far as streetcar route alignment goes, is that there is a strong need to find a balance here and pick up people in destination areas in order for the streetcar to serve as an incubator for somewhere else. Put more simply, a streetcar with nobody riding on it does very little to actually invoke infill interest--it's the people that streetcar brings, not the streetcar itself. Jeff also publicly alluded to (for the first time I'm aware of) something that he privately mentioned to me at a previous meeting, so I'm going to assume it's okay to break the news: We may very possibly end up with more than $120 million for streetcar..and I don't think he is just talking about a fed contribution. I'm sure more details on this will be forthcoming when it's appropriate.

Dean Schirf: Dean, one of my co-transit bloggers, was quite possibly one of the foremost experts on rail in the room during the meeting. This, despite that he never officially headed up the campaign for streetcar nor is he the one getting paid by COTPA for consulting on streetcar. So it's with great respect and admiration when I preface this by saying that I actually have a disagreement with Dean when he said that it is important to start small and grow the system based on what we know works. He suggested that the wise thing to do would be to cautiously expand into 6 miles, in order to avoid any risks of going with a bad route. He also spoke up on the issue of the boulevard, which we can ALL agree with: The mythical boulevard still has not yet been funded, not by the city, not by the state, not by ODOT's 8-year plan, and not by the feds--and it is showing absolutely no signs of getting funded any time soon, either. So then why, on earth, is COTPA even suggesting that an E/W alignment share a route with the proposed boulevard? Yeah, it would be cool. Imagine it: A Paris-like street in the middle of OKC, lined with cafes and coffee shops and destination retail such as Nordstrom's, packed with pedestrians, super wide, with a streetcar going down it even. And then snap back to reality....

There was also a dude who showed up to argue for a $5 billion metro-wide light rail plan. He gave me a card, I lost it, forgot his name, forgot the name of his plan--but apparently he is serious about this. Personally I think he mislead a lot of people in the room into thinking that his private citizen initiative is a real deal like this streetcar project IS, but it was interesting nonetheless.

My own opinions: First, as for the "start small" concept, to me it's not a matter of the wisdom in the idea or being impatient to affect change. The bottom line is that if we do not have a system that is comprehensive and gets people everywhere they want to go, it will fail. So to that end, how does it help us to just gradually open a line that takes people up and down Sheridan and just Sheridan? When the ridership lags behind our hopeful wishes do we get to say, "Well, it's only the starter line, doesn't take people anywhere besides along Sheridan.." or is "Told ya so!" more appropriate?

I was speaking and Jennifer Eve, who was moderating, asked me to continue about how I feel about I took a deep breath and this is what came out: The reality of this situation is really do or die for Oklahoma City. Here you have an infrastructure improvement that is so long overdue that it's easy to say just build the damn thing, whatever it is is we'll be happy with it. However, then it gets complicated. How much streetcar can $120 million buy us? That in my opinion is the MAIN QUESTION they should be asking, and NOT where can we stick 6 miles of streetcar? Because of the funding mechanism we are using for this project, any talk of expansion at the present is spurious--MAPS 4 will not even be a prospect until 2018 and a streetcar expansion can not be realized until 2025. We are committed to the overall MAPS 3 sales tax for the next 7-almost-8 years, and after that, we know the drill..voter approval, and then revenues must be collected BEFORE improvements begin. So yeah, don't even talk about expansion. What you have to do is design a system with the understanding that your hands are so tied by the funding mechanism that an expansion is not possible until 2025, or basically, a really long time.

Also my concern is with the project conception. Taking it like a scientific question, I think it asks the wrong question and has the control and variables inadvertently misplaced. The way COTPA has approached the question, the cost per mile is a constant and the route is the variable, the question being "How much can $120 million get us?" Instead I think that the route should be constant, the cost per mile should be the variable, and the question should be, "OK this is the route, now how much to spend per mile on it?"

See what I'm saying? There are certain things that make it more or less expensive per mile, and face it, the estimated $12-25 million per mile for modern streetcar systems is a HUGE range. If we come in closer to $12 million per mile, which would make me incredibly happy, then we could get 10 miles out of this system--and sure, we might not have some of the features that the $20 million/mile alternative would come with. But consider this: Which is going to attract more riders, a streetcar with bike racks and leather seats or a streetcar that connects Bricktown and Deep Deuce to the Oklahoma Health Center? We need to spend so much more focus on doing whatever we can to get slightly more than 6 miles. 8 miles would be great, and make a huge difference because in the current 6 mile system models I've seen, it is virtually impossible to do a good job connecting downtown districts and the medical district. I think that connecting the medical district is necessary due to the huge number of high-income jobs over there and the urban development growth that area is currently experiencing. But if you can't put a station in the middle of the medical district, don't even bother--there is no point in stopping at Lincoln and 8th because nobody is going to walk from 12th or 16th (OMRF) to get on the streetcar south of the medical district, basically. that's a LOT of issues, and a lot of debate, and a lot of respectful discourse. TOMORROW (Thursday) will mark the FINAL meeting of the Let's Talk Transit forum and it will basically consist of COTPA recounting back to us what we told them. It's a chance for us to see if they got our order right, basically. 11:30 am (lunchtime) and 6:30 pm, CITY HALL (not Civic Center).

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