SlyDi's recent diary about the national impact of the Midwest floods, has moved me to post a diary that I've been meaning to write for a number of days. SlyDi points out, among other things, that over the decades our nation has slowly destroyed what was once the greatest rail system in the world. And we're now paying the price for it. The Midwest floods only highlight this self-inflicted crisis that will become more and more apparent...especially as gas prices continue to soar.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the trucking interests that it largely represents have been busily trying to write another sad chapter in this saga for the last several years. ODOT has been working to build a huge, new highway through Oklahoma City. This ten-lane monstrosity is conveniently routed in such a way as to require the destruction of the old Union Station railyard, which might otherwise serve as a hub for rail transportation locally and throughout the state.
But now, thanks to the efforts of a group of citizen activists, the destruction has been put on hold.
In 1989, the City of Oklahoma City purchased Union Station for $1.8 billion. Most of that money, $1.2 billion, was federal funds, specifically earmarked for turning the facility into a mass transit hub. The station stands at the center of a network of nearly 900 miles of rail lines throughout the state. Oklahoma City sits smack dab in the middle of the Sooner State. Here's a map of the rail system in the OKC area:
But the city never got around to building the rail system for which it was fronted over a billion dollars of our tax money.
Not surprisingly given the centrality of the oil business for our state's prosperity, Oklahoma political elites are solidly in the back pocket of the producers and users of fossil fuels. When it comes to transportation, roads and trucking are good; rail is bad.
Although polls suggest that the public wants Oklahoma City to develop light rail, the city and the state have been working overtime to make that more difficult by plotting the destruction of Union Station and its associated rail lines.
They've been opposed by a group of citizen-activists, led by, among others, Tom Elmore, who heads an organization called the North American Transportion Institute (the website contains lots of additional info about the Oklahoma City fight) and Dr. Edwin Kessler, who is simply one of the most extraordinary people I know.
Now retired, Dr. Kessler is a meteorologist who used to direct the National Severe Storms Lab in Norman. A longtime board member of Common Cause Oklahoma, Dr. Kessler is a tireless fighter for our state and our environment, and against the corruption that still dominates Oklahoma politics.
One of the many threads of corruption that led from the plan to destroy the Union Station rail lines involved a January 2007 finding by the Federal Surface Transportation Board that rail lines owned by BNSF had been abandoned and unused for two years. This finding was critical because in order to expedite the destruction of the rail lines, the owners had to prove that they were unused. In theory, our federal policy is designed to prevent the destruction of useful infracture.
But in fact the lines were not unused. Dr. Kessler assembled evidence showing that the BNSF and Stillwater Central Railways had been using the lines during the period in which they had claimed the lines were unused.
On June 5 of this year, the STB reopened the case and found that the applicants for expedited destruction had provided false and misleading information. Under federal regulations, this automatically leads to a rejection of the application.
The war has not been won. But we've won an important battle. Expedited destruction of the rail lines is now out of the question. Having failed to prove abandonment, BNSF has a much steeper hill to climb. They must show that the integrity of the Union Station lines are unnecessary to transportation in the state of Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, with gas prices soaring, the idea of a modern, light rail system becomes more and more appealing to Oklahomans.
There's good reason to think that this reprieve in the planned destruction of our state's main rail hub will become permanent.
And it wouldn't have happened were it not for a handful of citizen activists willing to stand up to the powers-that-be and demand that our city, state, and federal governments operate for the people, and not for the special interests.