BY NATHANIEL BATCHELDER
The irreplaceable rail hub at Oklahoma City’s Union Station can still be saved by relocating one section of the new Interstate 40 south of the rails. This is critical because national rail connections and light rail connections to the rest of the state will become invaluable as gasoline supplies dwindle and prices climb. State senators, representatives, City Council members, and opinion leaders across our state MUST come to the aid of OKC’s rail hub.
See Ed Kessler’s story in Saturday’s Norman Transcript:
Published June 20, 2009
TWO DECADES OF DECEIT
By Edwin Kessler
A letter dated July 27, 1989, signed by Neal A. McCaleb, then Director of the Oklahoma Dept. of Transportation, confirmed ODOT support for purchase “of the Union Station terminal in Oklahoma City as a means of providing a central focal point for existing public transportation and potential future passenger rail services for Central Oklahoma.” The $1.2 million price for purchase of the terminal, which is in excellent condition today, was 80 percent funded with federal dollars.
During the 1990s, however, civic and government leadership in Oklahoma City proposed in contradiction to the 1989 letter, that the elevated Crosstown Highway [I-40] through downtown Oklahoma City be replaced by a 10-lane highway through the rail yard at Oklahoma City’s Union Terminal. Government may change its policies, but the proposed change has never been fairly justified. And Neal McCaleb now leads a group here [Restore Trust] that promotes highways.
The estimated cost of the proposed four miles of new highway is about $600 million, and the highway would destroy future use of the Union Terminal as the rail hub that it once was and could readily be again.
Two tracks through the Union Terminal rail yard connected Oklahoma to the national rail system. One track is operated by the Union Pacific Railroad and is an active freight line today. It continues to connect to Choctaw, Harrah, Shawnee and Seminole to the east, also serves several business on the west side of Oklahoma City and goes further west. This track is not abandoned, but would be depressed and run parallel to the new highway.
The second track, proposed for permanent removal, is the BNSF Chickasha line, and it carries trains operated by the Stillwater Central Railroad. During the week beginning June 7, it was removed from the Union Terminal, and it is replaced by a bypass, the Packing Town Lead, on the south side of the North Canadian River. It connects on the west side with Chickasha, Lawton, Ft. Sill, Altus and intermediate points. To the east, it goes to Wellston, Stroud and Tulsa.
In a report dated Feb. 22, 1999, then Oklahoma City Planning Director Garner Stoll stated that the routing decision was made in advance of study, that the chosen route was the most expensive by far among alternatives, and gave several other important arguments against the choice of the alternative route and the highway design. Thus, as the Crosstown project was developed and public meetings held at which benefits of the preselected route were emphasized, the Environmental Policy Act was violated because Section 1502.2 and 1506.1 of the Act require that “Agencies shall not commit resources prejudicing selection of alternatives before making a final decision.”
In a letter dated July 24, 2000, the State Historical Preservation Office found that the Crosstown project “will have no adverse effect on the Union Station, a property individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.” While the letter referred to the so-called 106 Process [36 CFR Part 800], it did not indicate that the 106 Process speaks emphatically to public participation, which was not part of the SHPO study. Furthermore, tunnels that facilitate all-weather access to the tracks, and underpasses that promote public safety and remain key design elements of the Union Terminal and its rail yard are not mentioned in the SHPO letter, but consideration of such elements is part of the legally required 106 process. Thus the SHPO finding of no adverse effect violates the 106 Process as defined in the Historic Preservation Act. Protest at the time of the letter and subsequent efforts toward reconsideration of the SHPO decision were to no avail.
Another violated law was Section 1204 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, as presented on pages 82 and 83 of that Act.
On Sept. 23, 2005, the BNSF Railway Company filed with the Surface Transportation Board a petition to abandon the Chickasha rail line through the Union Terminal rail yard. The STB regulates U.S. rail, especially for freight. Opponents cited a rule that requires disapproval of a proposed abandonment unless no freight traffic has originated on the segment proposed for abandonment during the two years preceding an application. However, opponents were unable to obtain sworn certifications descriptive of local freight service during the relevant period.
On Oct. 13, 2005, the STB granted abandonment authority to BNSF, but included timing restrictions that applied to completion of the alternative route, the Packing Town Lead, which runs south of the North Canadian River and connects with the Chickasha Line on both ends. The timing limitations were not met but they became unimportant in light of a subsequent STB decision.
This decision, served on June 5, 2008, declared the initial abandonment application by BNSF in 2005 “void ab initio” because of “false and misleading information.” In other words, BNSF, backed by the Oklahoma Deptment of Transportation, had lied to the Surface Transportation Board. Numerous filings in this matter with much additional information are available on the STB Web site under file AB-6-430-X.
Prior to the final STB decision on the original request for abandonment, there was another on Feb. 7, 2008. This directed BNSF not to “consummate” the abandonment. BNSF interpreted this decision as only requiring BNSF to restrain from pulling the last tie and piece of track, not from intermediate steps of removal. BNSF removed or allowed others to remove large sections of track and BNSF diverted traffic on the Chickasha Line to the Packingtown Lead.
Therefore, opponents filed in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma for injunction against removal of tracks by BNSF and/or the Oklahoma Deptment of Transportation or other entity. The suit was dismissed following the STB final decision of June 5, 2008, that threw out the BNSF application of September 2005. A related action in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., also was declared moot upon the issuance of the June 5, 2008, STB decision. Nevertheless, considerable track was cut and removed. BNSF has stated that the track will be replaced if there is a request for service, but additional track is being removed, not replaced. The STB lacks enforcement authority, and there has been no significant effort toward stopping BNSF and ODOT from pursuing their plans well in advance of receiving permission to do so.
During the case at the United States District Court in Oklahoma City, Garner Stoll, now assistant director for Planning and Zoning in Austin, Texas, presented his 1999 report and added comments as follows: “This paper [1999 report] concluded that ODOT did not complete an objective analysis of the alternative routes for the reconstruction of I-40 as is required by a Major Investment Study. I still hold this view.”
Other authorities who have decried the route of Oklahoma’s Crosstown Project in public statements, include Marvin Monaghan, a former member of the board of DART, in Dallas; Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City (who called the project “insane”); Malise Dick, a former international highway planner with the International Monetary Fund; and Garl Latham, a railroad consultant in Dallas who has twice visited Oklahoma City and testified at a meeting of our Oklahoma Legislature’s Transportation Committee. And there is a plank in the Oklahoma Democratic Party Platform document from 2007 that calls for preservation of the Union Terminal rail yard. Yet, in spite of this chorus, ODOT continues determined to remove Oklahoma’s existing rail hub and in this is even supported strongly by our Governor, who has stoutly refused even to convene a commission to review the Crosstown process. Indeed, in February and March 2004, Councilors of the City of Norman were threatened by ODOT Director Gary Ridley with loss of funds should they vote to ask the Governor to support a study of the Crosstown project!
– Nathaniel Batchelder is director of the Oklahoma City Peace House and an occasional contributor to The Oklahoma Observer; Edwin Kessler is vice-chair of Common Cause of Oklahoma and retired director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, OK.