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Oklahoma officials studying rail options

Oklahoma officials studying rail options

OFFICIALS FACE DEADLINE ON DECISION TO COMPETE FOR ADDITIONAL STIMULUS FUNDS 

BY JULIE BISBEE, NEWSOK

State transportation officials are considering competing for additional federal stimulus dollars to develop a high-speed rail corridor in Oklahoma.

Transportation Director Gary Ridley said Monday officials are still reviewing President Barack Obama’s proposed plan for high-speed rail development across the country. Guidelines for the program were released last week.

Ridley said there is about $8 billion available to states for updates to rail lines and high-speed train service. Oklahoma City is included as part of a south-central high-speed rail corridor proposed in the plan. The corridor, one of 10 proposed across the country, would include Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. Trains would travel up to 150 mph.

"We need to look at the guidance and understand it fully before putting together our response,” Ridley said after the state Transportation Commission met Monday.

The Transportation Department already owns a portion of the railway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, but updates would be needed to make the track conducive to high-speed travel, Ridley said.

"It’s rough country up there,” he said.

A study conducted nine years ago estimated it would cost at least $950 million to run passenger rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Today, that could be closer to $1.5 billion, Ridley said.

If the state is to compete for high-speed rail funding, officials must decide by July 10, when a letter of intent must be submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration. The governor’s office also will be involved in the discussion, Ridley said.

This comes after the state celebrated its 10-year anniversary of the Heartland Flyer, a train that travels between Oklahoma City and Forth Worth, Texas. The line is operated by Amtrak but funded through a partnership of Texas and Oklahoma.

Stimulus ‘milestone’
Meanwhile, the Transportation Commission on Monday approved the final round of road and bridge projects to be funded by stimulus dollars. Oklahoma leads the nation in the percentage of stimulus dollars already being spent or allocated to a project, Ridley said.
"We’ve hit a milestone today,” Ridley said. "It was our intent to have 80 percent of the money let to contracts in 90 days. We’ve got 82 percent of the money allotted in 110 days.”

The Transportation Department has already received $465 million in federal stimulus funding for road and infrastructure projects. After bids were approved Monday, the department has spent $382 million. Work is already being done on $352 million worth of road and bridge projects, Ridley said.

Community efforts
Also Monday, the Transportation Commission approved engineering contracts that will allow small communities that have a state highway passing through town to use stimulus funds to update sidewalks and ramps to be handicap-accessible.

The program will provide funding for improvements in 30 communities across the state.

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