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Oklahoma officials may seek high-speed rail funds

Oklahoma officials may seek high-speed rail funds

By TIM TALLEY, ASSOCIATED PRESS

MSN.COM

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Ten years after passenger rail service returned to Oklahoma, state transportation officials are considering applying for federal economic stimulus funds that could bring high-speed rail to parts of the state.

Oklahoma is included in one of the 10 passenger rail corridors designated by the Obama administration for possible high-speed rail projects. Oklahoma City and Tulsa are along a South Central corridor that also extends into Texas and Arkansas.

"It certainly should enhance our position," state Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley said Monday following a meeting of the Oklahoma Transportation Commission where Ridley and Joe Kyle, manager of the rail programs division, observed the 10th anniversary of the Heartland Flyer passenger rail train that travels daily between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas.

"This is truly a great milestone," Kyle said. "We're looking for 10 more great years."

The Heartland Flyer was launched in 1999 and returned passenger rail service along its 206-mile route after a 20-year absence.

The Heartland Flyer has experienced steady growth in ridership over the years and has carried more than 625,000 passengers. Last year, ridership rose by more than 18 percent to total 80,892 passengers, according to ridership figures for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

Ridley said Amtrak is conducting a study requested by the Kansas Department of Transportation into the feasibility of expanding the Heartland Flyer's route from Oklahoma City to Kansas City through Wichita. The cost of the passenger rail service is currently paid by the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

Ridley said transportation officials must determine the financial feasibility of creating a high-speed passenger rail service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa before the state seeks federal stimulus funds. And he indicated it may be cost prohibitive.

"That's pretty rough country up there," he said.

A feasibility study conducted eight years ago indicated tracks and other infrastructure for a high-speed train between the state's two largest cities would cost up to $950 million, Ridley said. The cost is now probably closer to $1.5 billion, and only $8 billion in stimulus cash has been appropriated for all 10 proposed corridors nationwide, he said.

The Federal Railroad Administration has set July 10 as the deadline for pre-applications and Aug. 24 as the deadline for most final application papers. The FRA has said it intends to release the first round of grants by mid-September.

In other action, the commission awarded contracts for another $23.9 million in federal economic stimulus money on state road and bridge projects, bringing to $352 million the amount of federal stimulus dollars it has spent on state highway projects.

Including county road and bridge projects, the state has spent $382 million in stimulus funds, officials said.

Oklahoma received $465 million in stimulus money for road and bridge improvements and other transportation projects. Ridley said the state spent 82 percent of the money within 110 days of receiving it, more than most states during the same time period.

"We certainly don't have to take a backseat to anybody," he said.

Ridley said the number of road construction projects this summer could create inconveniences for travelers.

"We hope that the public will have some patience with us," he said. "Drive slowly through those construction zones."

Ridley says the state has about $80 million in stimulus funds remaining. Most of it will go toward county transportation projects and meeting federal disability guidelines.

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