For over 14 years, local elected officials, business leaders, and community advocates have been engaged in the difficult process of bringing regional transit to the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. Under the auspices of the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments (ACOG), a continuous dialogue has moved the region to an important decision point which will require ratification by the city councils of the six largest cities in the metro area over the next couple of months. The Edmond City Council took action on October 8 and Norman is scheduled to do so on October 23.
As a long-term participant in these discussions and as the current chair of the Regional Transit Task Force (the six-city body which has drafted a governance framework for a new regional authority), I have seen the conversation shift from "who needs transit when we have cars and pickups" to "how do we take the necessary steps to think regionally about alternative forms of transportation."
A lot of attention is given by cities to economic development proposals but little compares to the economic muscle that a robust transit system would bring. Of note, a first class transit system was one of the key criteria that Amazon used in vetting the many bids for its second headquarters. Recently the Norman City Council discussed possible approval of a trust indenture to create a regional transit author, but unfortunately there has been little public coverage of this pending decision. It is important to understand the history of this conversation, the elements of a regional system, and the next steps.
In 2005, ACOG adopted the Fixed Guideways Study which identified transit corridors and new modes of transit for our region. This study sparked an intergovernmental conversation (the Regional Transit Dialogue I and II chaired by Mayor Mick Cornett) which was a crucial step toward changing the conversation. Transit requires regional thinking and regional cooperation to be successful, and these conversations were a critical first step. Another key outcome of this process was identification of barriers in state law to creating a regional transit authority. House Bill 2480 was passed in May 2014 making it possible to create a regional authority with the ability to seek sales tax funding of transit operations.
At the same time, ACOG led a public input process to identify the elements of a regional system, something referred to as locally preferred alternatives. LPAs identified a number of key transportation elements: 1) a commuter rail spine using the BNSF right of way from Norman to Edmond, passing through Santa Fe Station in downtown Oklahoma City and linking to the OKC streetcar loops; 2) a streetcar line from downtown OKC to Tinker Airbase using right of way of Union Pacific; 3) bus rapid transit from downtown OKC to Will Rogers airport; and 4) dramatically increased bus service through the region linking retail and employment centers and coordinating inter-city transportation. With CART service currently being threatened, the enhanced bus service would be critically important to Norman.
In September 2015, the region's six largest cities - OKC, Norman, Edmond, Moore, Midwest City, and Del City - signed an historic memorandum of understanding to work together to create the legal and financial framework for a regional authority. The task force now has drafted the trust documents to establish the Regional Transportation Authority of Central Oklahoma (RTACO), an agreement which requires approval from the six city councils and council appointment of a RTACO board member.
The trust would establish district boundaries consistent with existing municipal boundaries and empower the authority to seek voter approval of funding to begin building the infrastructure for our regional system. The authority would be accountable to its beneficiaries in a variety of way - open meetings, mandatory audits, ethics provisions, etc. Importantly, the trust establishes voting protocols that insure regional cooperation and guarantee representation for the member cities. For example, the voting on major decisions requires a 67% threshold, effectively a minimum of three of the six cities. I believe that most decisions will end up being unanimous as we have done with the task force thus far. The trust also provides a method for expanding and contracting the district services and membership.
This is an important crossroads for bringing transit to the region but commuter rail will not appear overnight. Once the RTACO is established, the next steps will be to negotiate and secure right of way from the railroads, plans will be updated, federal funding secured for additional planning, and ultimately the authority will have to seek voter approval to fully fund the system. That vote is still probably three to five years in the future, but that possibility is much closer to reality than when we started down this path so many years ago.
Encourage your council member to support the next steps regarding transit. It is good for Norman, for the region, and for Oklahoma.
Cindy Rosenthal was Norman mayor from 2007-2016.