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Oklahoma efforts could boost rail service

Oklahoma efforts could boost rail service

Newsok.com

BY JULIE BISBEE
Published: September 27, 2009

The changing landscape of travel and transportation could make Oklahoma and other states winners in the race for passenger railroad service.

Last week, transportation officials from across the country gathered in Oklahoma City eager to hear from federal officials how they could get a piece of $8 billion in stimulus funds designated solely for passenger rail service.

Oklahoma is vying for a $2 billion chunk of the stimulus dollars that can only be used for rail.

The application deadline for requesting those funds is Friday. State transportation officials won’t know if they are selected for funding until after the first of the year.

"This is about giving folks a choice,” said Gene Conti, North Carolina transportation secretary and chairman of the standing committee on rail for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "People think Americans are so car-focused, but there really is an interest in passenger rail service.”

Member organizations spent three days in Oklahoma City discussing how to work with freight rail service, improve safety and enhance passenger service.

In North Carolina, passenger rail service is subsidized by the state. But Conti says as more people start seeing the benefits of train travel, the need to subsidize could decrease.

"You’ve got to build a network and then work on building strong ridership,” he said.

In Oklahoma, the state is already helping to pay for train service between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, on the Heartland Flyer.

Part of the proposed plan for rail service in Oklahoma would call for a line between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

That service could cost about $21 million to operate each year, according to the state Transportation Department.

Oklahoma’s proximity to major metropolitan areas to the north and the south isn’t being ignored by federal officials, either.

Oklahoma is part of the south-central rail corridor that stretches from Tulsa to San Antonio, Texas, with an eastern line to Little Rock, Ark.

Eventually the corridor could link with rail hubs in Kansas City and allow passengers to access networks out of Chicago.

Uncertain travel plans for airlines could also make passenger rail networks more imperative, said Karen Rae, deputy administrator for the Federal Rail Administration.

Rae also attended the conference in Oklahoma City last week.

"These corridors make sense,” she said.

"As airlines get rid of their short-haul routes it’s important for us to be build a network.”

Oklahoma will begin seeing the effects of the changing dynamics of air travel later this year when American Airlines cuts backs on its flights in the state to major hubs such as St. Louis.

American Airlines earlier this month announced that it would end its American Eagle flights between Oklahoma City and St. Louis by summer. Flights between Tulsa and St. Louis are expected to cease this year.

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