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Streetcar vs. bus

A city councilman pushes back on the anticipated MAPS 3 streetcar amid concerns it will hurt the bus system.

Tim Farley April 24th, 2013

The anticipated return of streetcars to downtown Oklahoma City has sparked excitement and anticipation among many city leaders, but Ed Shadid isn’t one of them.

The streetcar system in Portland, Ore., is among those being used as a model for OKC.

An outspoken critic of the modern streetcar project, the Ward 2 councilman claims voters were misled about that part of the MAPS 3 plan.

Shadid, a supporter of the Metro Transit bus system, has repeatedly called for more funding and improvements in that area.

“We were told this would be the largest streetcar system in the nation. Not true. We heard this would not be a loop around downtown, yet it may end up being a loop around downtown,” he said.

“The public was led to believe that we were going to parlay this into federal funds, which is not true. Three years after the vote, the city was denied federal funding.”

Federal Transit Administration officials confirmed they informed the Central Oklahoma Transportation Parking Authority (COTPA) in April of last year that Oklahoma City’s streetcar program would not be considered for federal funding. According to the FTA, the project’s overall score did not meet the agency’s requirements.

Multiple criteria used to deter mine eligibility included cost effectiveness, estimated economic development created by the project and local financial commitment. Operation and maintenance funding is a key piece of the local financial commitment.

Shadid labeled COTPA’s federal funding try a “fool’s errand” since the authority had no ridership numbers or potential economic development estimates.

Although the streetcars and the projected six miles of track will be paid via MAPS 3, funding for future operation and maintenance has not been determined, said MAPS 3 program manager David Todd.

“To say there is no plan is true,” he said, “but there are ideas and concepts we’re studying to do that.”

Meanwhile, City Manager Jim Couch said operation and maintenance costs on the project’s first phase should not exceed $3 million a year, or less than 1 percent of the city’s $400 million general fund.

“We can blend that into our revenue growth,” he said.

Shadid contends that is hardly a plan.

“That should alarm a lot of people. It’s easy to build things, but it takes more sophistication to operate and maintain them,” he said.

Ed Shadid
Credit: Mark Hancock

Working together
Shadid may appear to be the city council’s lone maverick in terms of transit, but the first-term councilman is adamant about making the bus system the No. 1 public transportation priority.

“Streetcars are a symbol of transit, but it does not score high in terms of functional transit,” he said. “What problem is being solved with the streetcar? Moving people around downtown is not solving any problem. I’m opposed to only investing in streetcars and not looking at any other transit.”

But Nathaniel Harding said that’s not the case. Harding, chairman of the MAPS 3 Transit subcommittee, said his panel has never suggested taking money away from the bus system.

“Streetcars will not harm the existing transit system,” he said. “To have a good transit system, you need a variety of modes. They need to coexist. It all ties into a future mass transit system and will help kick off a regional system.”

Buses will be useful in transporting people to downtown, which, in turn, allows streetcars to shuttle visitors, residents and workers to the various entertainment and shopping venues.

“It’s a model that works in other cities,” Harding said. “Streetcars will fail without a quality bus system. Streetcars will free up buses to serve other areas outside of downtown Oklahoma City.”

Couch suggested the modern, sleek-looking streetcars will take Oklahoma City to the next level in terms of downtown growth.

Jim Couch

“It will enhance downtown and benefit the people who work, live and visit here,” he said. “It will spurn new development and should be an economic boom. No doubt about that.”

City officials in Portland, Ore., have seen firsthand the impact of a streetcar system on a community. Since 2001 — the year the streetcars were operational — more than $4 billion in investment has come to that area, including 10,000 new housing units, according to Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar, Inc., and a consultant on the OKC project.

Without the streetcars, developers would not have made such a sizable investment, he said.

Lee Nichols, senior transportation planner for Jacobs Engineering, the lead consultant on the OKC project, said developers like the permanency of streetcar lines. In Seattle, developments have been built one to two blocks from the streetcar line, he said.

“Streetcars historically helped develop cities, and now it’s come full circle,” Nichols said.

Two potential streetcar routes in OKC are under review, and a related economic development assessment is under way in connection with both routes. A route recommendation and the assessment should be finalized this summer.

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