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Counterpoint: Streetcar budget defies reality


Nancy K. Anderson October 16th, 2013

Now that the 4.5-mile downtown route for the MAPS 3 streetcar — Phase 1 — has been decided, the challenge will be to get it completed at a cost anywhere near the amount budgeted. The experience in other cities indicates it will cost far more to build — and to keep it running — than we’ve been told.

Numbers can make us numb. But they show why it’s imperative for city staff to stay on top of this project, to see if we can actually afford to build it at this length — and then to run it.

Otherwise, budget overruns will imperil needed taxpayer support not only for the envisioned expansion of the streetcar line and area-wide transit but also for future MAPS projects. And, of course, those millions would not be available for other, basic needs.

The budget for Phase 1 is $94.37 million. The rest of the $128.82 million streetcar budget consists of $24.70 million for Phase 2 and $9.75 million for the transit hub planned at the Santa Fe Depot.

The city’s consultants are committed to the $94 million for Phase 1, one of them assured the citizens advisory board in August — even though “[they’re] projecting a cost of $99 to $109 million.” Huh?!

The consultant who said that is with the company that has the design-build contract for the 2.7-mile streetcar line under construction in Atlanta, Ga.,

URS, Inc. Soon after its contract started, URS asked for a 19 percent increase; it ultimately received 13 percent.

The Atlanta project is almost two miles shorter than Oklahoma City’s Phase 1 but has a larger total budget — $98.9 million. This is up 37 percent from the original figure.

Also compare these much higher total costs for shorter lines: the 3.35-mile extension completed last year to the Portland, Ore., line, $148.27 million; the 3.9-mile Tucson, Ariz., streetcar to start running next year, $196.5 million; the 3.6-mile Cincinnati streetcar now under construction, $147.8 million; and the proposed 4.0-mile Winston-Salem, N.C., streetcar, $179 million.

Operating and maintenance expenses pose another problem because they will be ongoing. Such costs for Phase 1 are estimated at $2.5-$3 million per year. Our city manager says these costs can be absorbed into the city’s budget.

But how accurate is that estimate? In Tucson, Ariz., the figure for operating costs has risen 80 percent to $5.2 million by 2017. In Winston-Salem, the forecast is $4 million.

There’s no reason to expect any assistance from the federal government, given its budget mess and its demonstrated lack of enthusiasm for this project.

Nor is there reason to expect much, if any, help from the property owners along the streetcar route, who likely will benefit significantly from the intended economic development. It would be nice if they’d pitch in on operations and maintenance, but they are under no obligation to do so.

I’d like to be wrong about all this.

However, common sense tells me otherwise.

Nancy K. Anderson is a longtime Oklahoma City lawyer who focuses on research and writing, including legal appeals.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

 
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