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Federal board rejects challenge to I-40 project

Federal board rejects challenge to I-40 project

This article first appeared in the Journal Record.

May 26, 2009

KLAHOMA CITY – A federal agency has authorized the relocation of an Oklahoma City railway line that lies in the path of the most expensive highway construction project ever undertaken in the state.

In a ruling, the Surface Transportation Board granted an application by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. to relocate about a mile of rail line it owns that lies in the path of the Interstate 40 Crosstown Expressway relocation project.

Construction of the $500 million, 4.5-mile project is under way and completion is scheduled by 2012. But Gary Ridley, director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said last month construction work could not begin on a one-mile stretch of the project until the rail line was moved.

Ridley said the area will become part of the critical path of the Crosstown relocation project this year and that delays were possible if the federal agency did not grant BNSF’s application within 60 days.

In a statement, ODOT officials said they were pleased with the decision and that it will help keep the I-40 project on schedule.

“ODOT can now proceed with fulfilling requirements to let the project in the center portion of the corridor involving the relocated track as a result of this ruling,” the statement said.

However, the next scheduled project in a series of about 20 projects involving the highway relocation project will go out for bids this summer and involves widening the westbound lanes of I-40 on the west end of the corridor.

In its ruling, the federal agency said relocation of I-40 in Oklahoma City “is clearly a valid public purpose” and that there has been no local traffic on the rail line involved in 10 years.

“There is no evidence to suggest that a public need for rail service ... outweighs the public purposes associated with replacing a deteriorated, outdated and overcapacity interstate highway,” the decision states. “Expediting the abandonment will minimize federal regulatory control over the rail system, expedite regulatory decisions and reduce regulatory barriers.”

Opponents, including the Oklahomans for New Transportation Alternatives Coalition, have said relocating the line will disrupt a critical east-west rail path that connects southwest Oklahoma with eastern parts of the state.

In a statement, OnTrac executive board Chair Charles Wesner said the decision does not mean ODOT’s plan to abandon the rail line is in the best interest of future passenger rail transit for the Oklahoma City metropolitan area and central Oklahoma.

“The fact of the matter is that the STB bases its decisions solely on the impacts such actions have on rail freight shippers,” Wesner said. “There was no consideration given to passenger rail transit needs.”

OnTrac communications director Marion Hutchison urged ODOT to make minor changes to the alignment of the new Crosstown project “that would preserve this important major rail line connection.”

Construction of the new I-40 Crosstown began in late 2005. The new 10-lane interstate is being built about five blocks south of the current corridor.

The project’s total cost will rise to $600 million if a planned boulevard is built along parts of the existing roadway’s path.

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