Jeff Bezdek took the microphone at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and told the assembled crowd of mass transportation executives, riders and others interested in Oklahoma City's transportation system that now is the time.
Now is their time.
"You have passion," Bezdek told the April 21 meeting of the Oklahoma Alliance for Public Transportation, or APT.
"You represent a demographic of people who want it improved. "¦ At no time in the last 30 years in Oklahoma City's history have we reached a point where funding and expansion and improvement have been more viable than now. I'm talking about a political climate in which our elected officials understand that this is the next step to improving the lives of all our citizens."
MODERN TRANSIT PROJECT
Bezdek, 27, the principal of public enhancement company Bezdek + Associates and board member of the Urban Neighbors downtown association, gave it to them straight. As the son of an Austin, Texas, mass transportation superintendent and a member of the Modern Transit Project, Bezdek knows a thing or two about transit. He knows a metro-wide, world-class, "big-league city" mass transit system will cost.
"I'll be blunt," he said. "It's a billion-dollar solution. To put it all over Edmond, Norman, Oklahoma City " you name it " it's a billion dollars. But, we have MAPS 3 coming out. We are going to invest somewhere between $80 and $100 million, our down payment on the solution."
MAPS 3, he said, has plenty of projects lining up. There is a proposed new, massive downtown convention center. There's a huge central park planned for part of the Core to Shore redevelopment plan. But there is also talk of the streetcar.
"I can tell you, the mayor is committed to expanding bus service," Bezdek said. "We are also committed to putting the first leg of rail in, a modern streetcar in the downtown area. Now, if MAPS 3 is funded, and we have that $100 million invested, we will see a significant increase in mass transit in three years. Three years is the operational schedule for improvements."
Three years to a downtown streetcar? Yes, it's possible, said several developers. Oklahoma City is not overbuilt and expensive to expand, unlike old-line cities such as Seattle, which is also developing mass transit at a premium.
But streetcar boomers say real estate in Oklahoma City is still cheap, comparatively. And, they say, with new expansion plans for the downtown boulevard, shop space and other attractions to line the streets of a downtown rail system could reap benefits.
But will it happen? If you ask Bezdek, he's sold. And selling. He said that $100 million for the first leg of a streetcar system is a small investment on what the city will collect.
"The federal government has matching ratios that are far exceeding that right now," he said. "If we take this step "¦ we will get incredible funding back to our community. We have a unique opportunity to (apply) directly to Congress through our MAPS 3 funding mechanism and supply the money that gets results immediately. I think that is exciting, very exciting." >>>
Bezdek's baby is a "modern streetcar" design similar to one used in Portland, Ore., or one now being planned for Albuquerque, N.M. It would be wired into the city's systems, electrical and wireless.
The initial leg the MTP board is lobbying for would be a single line along Sheridan Avenue: through Bricktown, past the Cox Convention Center, past the Myriad Botanical Gardens and on to the Central Business District.
This is one view of the downtown streetcar. According to Bezdek, after the initial Sheridan leg of the line is put in place, future plans would extend northwest through Midtown, all the way to the St. Anthony Hospital complex. The leg initially ending in Bricktown would be extended up through Deep Deuce, then on to the Health Sciences Center and ending at the state Capitol complex.
The streetcars would be WiFi-enabled and linked to the turn signals, so the lights would give the streetcars the right-of-way.
"It will be able to cut through traffic like a hot knife through butter," Bezdek said. "That's how you'll be able to move people during major events as well."
MTP board member and developer James Ellison, who worked in Seattle acquiring properties for investors along that city's light rail track, said the development of a streetcar means development of shops, restaurants, housing and other business, taking advantage of the regular foot traffic near stops.
"We knew where the light rail link, the pathway, was going to built," he said of developing in Seattle. "We knew where the stations were going to be. I represented developers looking for key development sites, within reasonable walking distance of the station. Depending on where the route is "¦ an efficient streetcar system will make people want to be closer " living or working or owning businesses " near stops for that route. You will get more foot traffic."
A.J. Kirkpatrick, a planner with the City of Oklahoma City, said the initial leg of the system is the most crucial.
"The immediate benefit of the Sheridan line to me is that you could connect Bricktown to the Central Business District," Kirkpatrick said. "All of a sudden, you'd have downtown workers who would have a consistent connection to Bricktown."
Kirkpatrick's specialization in planning is parking. He said that parking in Bricktown is down 36 percent during weekly lunch hours. Since the only consistent way to get to Bricktown during the lunch hour is by driving or walking there, the lower levels of parking during that time indicate that lunch is being undersold in one of Oklahoma City's premier restaurant areas.
"Bricktown is a single-use district, and we'd encourage it to become a truly mixed-use district and have more offices and more residential, and they would be buffered from this boom-bust cycle they get, which is all the parking gets used on Friday and Saturday nights or on a Thunder game," he said. "They could diversify their market, have hotel clientele and residents coming during the middle of the week."
Even with offices close by, pedestrians are intimidated by the sprint across busy E.K. Gaylord Boulevard, walkability consultant Jeff Speck recently pointed out. Crossing it in a large, steel streetcar with stoplights synchronized in your favor makes the streetcar a connector of Bricktown to the rest of its potential clientele, Kirkpatrick said. Gaylord would no longer be the great divide.
"The value of the Sheridan line, that I kind of like, you are connecting all this parking, all those major tourist attractions," Kirkpatrick said. "The Myriad Gardens, the convention center (would be) within a few blocks of all your major downtown hotels, and you'll have your biggest employer with potentially 3,000 employees, who would exit right onto the potential route. You'd also have the Bricktown Ballpark and the heart of your entertainment district all on one line."
The other value of Sheridan as a route: It's straight. That will be important, he said.
"Because fixed rail would be such a new thing for Oklahomans, we'd want to start off with a very straight line, something that doesn't jog or go one block over," he said. "You'd be able to look down Sheridan and see when it was coming. You'd remove the doubt that you might stand for 15 minutes and it never show up again "¦ like what we experience with the trolleys. I'm not saying you wouldn't do other lines later. You could connect to Midtown, or the Health Sciences Center later. But we need to get an early victory, so people see the value of having those lines."
But just how close is that victory?
In his State of the City address before Oklahoma City's leaders in January, the first item Mayor Mick Cornett mentioned for funding was mass transit.
"Instead of shelving ideas about public transit, I say, now is the time to ramp up the conversation," Cornett said. "And let's make sure the world knows, that as the nation's energy supply slowly transitions from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of energy, that Oklahoma City intends to remain a leader in the energy industry."
He said the 21st-century blueprint is already in place with the Fixed Guideway Study, which includes an enhanced bus system with light-rail and downtown streetcar components.
But how many, or which ones? Cornett said he and other city leaders still haven't sorted it out.
"It's too early to know," Cornett said. "We are still sorting through the ideas. What I want to happen is that I think we need to start implementing the Fixed Guideway Study in MAPS 3, and I want public transit to be a significant part of MAPS 3. Exactly where we start is yet to be determined."
The Fixed Guideway Study, which is the master plan for Oklahoma City's transportation systems, lists the modern streetcar as a possible mode in mass transit options for Oklahoma City. Bus rapid transit and commuter rail are also listed.
One aspect of Bezdek's plan might tip the scale: The MTP would be powered by OG&E's wind-generated electricity.
State Environment Secretary J.D. Strong supports the wind power plan. In a letter to Cornett, he advocated that the wind-powered modern streetcar design be favored.
"I recently met with Jeff Bezdek and Mark Gibbs of the Modern Transit Project organization," Strong wrote. "They have developed a concept to use our vast wind resources to power the Modern Streetcar system proposed in the Fixed Guideway Study. Using wind to power a mass transit system would be among the first uses of such a resource in the United States, and perhaps the world."
Another reason the wind-electric streetcar would be a good idea, Strong said, is about another tipping point altogether.
"It does become more challenging every year to stay in attainment with air quality standards. The biggest challenge now is that "¦ they've been made even more stringent," he said. "Should we go onto the non-attainment list, that will mean we will have to develop a plan to bring those areas back into attainment with air quality standards. It can mean more costly measures for everyone living in those areas."
If 150 people ride a wind-powered streetcar, that's 150 people likely not driving a car by themselves and therefore not adding to the 50 percent of air pollution in Oklahoma City caused by its car-heavy transportation system, Strong said.
"It's a doubly good project, a win-win for all involved," he said. "It's not just ozone-free, emission-free energy that's being generated, but it's an option for folks to use in the urban core instead of their automobile. I suppose a triple benefit of it would be to use an Oklahoma-based energy source, not a fuel source that comes from overseas."
An obvious advocate is OG&E. Spokesman Brian Alford said it could easily support MTP's streetcar.
"We have ample wind energy in Oklahoma to power projects like this. Anytime wind energy can (be) used to the benefit of economic development, we definitely want to be part of those conversations and do what we can to do provide wind energy for projects like this," he said. "To be exploring a similar opportunity in Oklahoma is the right thing to do at the right time."
Bezdek, a former campaign worker for both Presidents Bush and Obama, said it should be a matter of state pride.
"We've already been chosen as one link in the high-speed rail corridor out of Texas," he said. "I've talked to (Vice President) Joe Biden about it " he says it's going to happen. Imagine what will happen if they get off the train in Oklahoma City and there's no way for them to go anywhere. Imagine how embarrassing that is. Might as well chain cattle up next to the Santa Fe station."
TYPES OF RAIL
The modern streetcar is typically a 66-foot-long, 8-foot-wide car that rides on rails set in the cement of a street. It is powered by electricity through a pole in the top that touches an electric highline wire.
The streetcar proposed for Oklahoma City would use electricity generated by the wind " thus, no emissions. Modern streetcars can travel up to 45 miles an hour, although most travel the posted speed of the route, usually slower.
One advantage of the modern streetcar is that it can run on rails built into normal streets without additional buildup of the rail bed.
Light rail can appear similar to the modern streetcar, or it can appear more like a commuter train. In fact, like the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) line, they are often used by commuters traveling to their jobs downtown from the suburbs.
In Oklahoma City, proposed light rail lines would most likely serve Norman, Edmond, Midwest City and other suburbs in the metro and link to downtown Oklahoma City. They differ primarily in that they are quite heavy and require a built-up rail bed to support them.
The rail lines recently proposed to link Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas and San Antonio or Houston are heavy, specially built trains that require precision track beds.
Europe and Japan have many high-speed rail trains. Such trains travel at speeds up to 200 miles per hour and are used to provide regional transportation, almost like an airline.
The cost of high-speed rail lines is in the billions. "Ben Fenwick