Flickr user Bengt 1955 (cc).
Oklahoma City’s Santa Fe Depot, scheduled for renovation into an intermodal center.
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Did you know? Oklahoma City residents passed a sales tax increase backed by the mayor in 2009 to fund improved transit, parks and community facilities because they wanted a more livable community with additional transportation options.
The city's investments have paid off through recognition and support from other levels of government. This year, Oklahoma City will receive $14 million in U.S. Dept. of Transportation TIGER grants to upgrade the downtown Santa Fe intermodal hub. It is only the most recent step forward in “OKC’s” plans to radically expand transit in a rejuvenated city center.
Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation has distributed more than $3.5 billion in annual TIGER grants, special funding that requires a local match designated for worthy transportation projects around the country. The competition for these dollars is intense; in a typical year, municipalities, states and transportation agencies apply for 10 times as much funding as is available. TIGER has provided funds to commence the renovation of several major intercity rail stations, including New York’s Moynihan Station, St. Paul’s Union Depot, New Haven’s State Street Station, and Raleigh’s Union Station.
TIGER grants are distributed on the basis of several performance criteria, including state of good repair, economic competitiveness, livability, environmental sustainability and safety. The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) advocates for similar criteria to be used for the distribution of most transportation funding, at local, state and federal levels.
A major intermodal station planned for Oklahoma City
The Santa Fe station, which is located between Oklahoma City’s business district and its booming Bricktown district, already serves Amtrak. The national rail service’s Heartland Flyer connects OKC with Fort Worth, Texas once a day. The Art Deco station was completed in 1934 by the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and is aging. But ridership has doubled in the past 10 years, increasing from 29,576 users in 2003 to 59,212 in 2012.
Meanwhile, the states of Oklahoma and Texas are studying ways to expand and improve train services into the city. And Oklahoma City leaders have suggested the possibility of developing a commuter rail system in the region, with connections to the nearby suburbs of Norman to the southeast and Edmond to the northeast. Each of these improvements would expand the use of the Santa Fe depot.
Under the leadership of Mayor Mick Cornett, who has been in office since 2004, the city has prioritized the depot’s renovation. Thanks to the TIGER grant, OKC will be able to prepare for the future influx of new passengers. The whole station will be upgraded by 2016 and incorporate improved train, car and bike facilities. More than half of the project’s cost will be covered by local sources.
Connections with an urban streetcar system
In 2009, Mayor Cornett asked Oklahoma City’s voters to approve a one-cent sales tax increase (referred to as “MAPS 3,” or Metropolitan Area Projects—3). The city’s residents were excited by the improvements the tax would fund, including a convention center, a downtown public park, improvements along the Oklahoma River, trails and sidewalks, and voted in favor of the proposal. The tax was instituted in 2010 and will expire in 2017. It is expected to raise a total of $777 million over that period.
MAPS 3 also provided funding for a $129 million streetcar line through the center of the city. The modern streetcars, which will not need overhead wires along their full routes, will run along a Z-shaped alignment that connects the Bricktown neighborhood (which includes the Bricktown Canal, a lively urban space filled with new retail and restaurants) with the downtown business district, a community commercial district called Automobile Alley and the St. Anthony Hospital Campus. Along the way, it will pass on both sides of the Santa Fe depot.
The city council approved the project last week, and construction on the initial phase will begin in 2015 and be completed in 2017. A further expansion to the Oklahoma Health Center, a major medical facility, is planned, addressing criticism that the route does not stretch far enough.
Part of a major rethinking of the center city
The streetcar and renovated train station will make central Oklahoma City a more inviting place for people who want to take advantage of alternative transportation options. Because of the city’s redevelopment plans for downtown, the number of people likely to use that infrastructure will expand. From 2000 to 2010, the city core grew by 7 percent to 9,000 people—and a significant further influx is likely.
At the heart of Oklahoma City’s plans is the Core to Shore project, which will extend the downtown from the existing business district to the edge of the Oklahoma River. Working with the state department of transportation, the city rerouted Interstate 40, clearing the way for a new urban boulevard and new, more pedestrian-friendly below-grade alignment. A new park funded by MAPS 3, along with 750 acres of additional redevelopment, follow the construction of an arena and a 50-story tower. The city projects that the Core to Shore redevelopment area will support the construction of 3,000 units of housing. It has already attracted new office development.
Oklahoma City is bringing together an improved intermodal station, expanded local transit and a rethinking of surrounding development to create a more vibrant and active center city. The city's investments in livability undoubtedly have spurred some of the population growth that downtown has recently experienced. Though OKC is working at a smaller scale, its coordinated approach to thinking about transportation and surrounding development is a model for MPC’s work on the renovation and expansion of Union Station, as well as the potential creation of a value-capture district in the surrounding area. Tying infrastructure investments to land development will make for a healthier cityscape for Chicago.