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City officials discuss future ideas of OKC mass transit

City officials discuss future ideas of OKC mass transit

The Journal Record by Brian Brus

June 10, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma City spends far less per person for public mass transit than any of its peer cities, city officials said Tuesday during budget presentations.

The city subsidizes about $26 per capita, compared with $41 in Tulsa, $60 in Nashville, $81 in Fort Worth, Texas, and $130 in Austin.

But council members said they want to improve the system with an expectation that Oklahoma City is moving toward a major expansion, possibly with fixed light rail or trolley service. The problem, Mayor Mick Cornett said, is what direction to take.

Oklahoma City’s proposed 2009-2010 fiscal year budget was presented to council members during the regularly scheduled City Council meeting earlier this month. City departments finished their individual budgets to the council Tuesday. The overall budget will be voted on during the June 16 council meeting and will become effective July 1.

Departments have been directed to cut 1.5 percent to balance the $839.6 million budget. Rick Cain, the city’s transportation and parking director, said his department can save about $3.5 million due to changes, including personnel insurance costs, automobile fuel prices and bus engine upgrades. The department has proposed a budget of about $31.8 million.

The city government currently subsidizes 49 percent of its public transportation system, with 10 percent coming from fares, 5 percent from the state coffers and 32 percent from the federal government. The remainder is paid through other sources.

“We’ve already moved forward with an alternatives analysis, which is the second step in the fixed-guideway study, in order to address future transportation needs before they become problems,” Cain said.

The department is also supporting a new carpooling initiative by the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, he said.

“When the city asked citizens about a possible MAPS3 (1-cent tax issue), we were encouraged by the interest expressed by the public to have a transit element included,” Cain said. “However, we recognize that not all the public defines that element in the same way.”

Councilman Sam Bowman said that within three to five years, the bus fleet will be totally overhauled, and the city has an infrastructure that could support a system 10 times its current size. But the city’s routes do not seem to have grown in recent years, he said.

“As we move to begin talking about a MAPS3 initiative, and the glitziness of rail and high-speed transportation … no matter where we go, how fast we build a mass-transit system, we have to enhance our existing bus system,” Bowman said.

Other council members argued over whether the city would be better served by a smaller system with a higher standard of quality or more routes across a wider area. Multiple-municipality options are being studied as well, Cornett said.

“None of us are against transit. All of us, though, fight inefficiencies in government, and transit is one of the toughest things to justify from a subsidy standpoint,” Cornett said. “It’s not that we don’t care about people that rely on the bus system. But we also care about the size of the subsidy that’s going to be required to run something we can be proud of.”

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