BY DAVID PERRYMAN
In 2006, Pixar Animation Studios released the movie Cars and introduced us to Radiator Springs, an imaginary town along Route 66 that long ago had been bypassed by a freeway beyond the city limits. The characters are personified vehicles with names like Lightning McQueen, Sally Carrera, Mater the Tow Truck, Doc Hudson, Flo, Luigi and a whole host of other cars and trucks.
Viewers see a community where the slower pace and quality of life is enhanced by knowing and caring about one’s neighbors. The essence of the film is caught in a conversation between McQueen, a stock car literally lost in the rat race of society, and Sally, a baby blue Porsche 911 who has intentionally escaped that world to pursue wholesomeness and harmony in Radiator Springs, a community where despite hard economic times, relationships matter.
After McQueen has experienced the virtues of Radiator Springs and developed feelings for Sally, he is amazed that the thousands of cars that zip by daily on the freeway do not know what they are missing. Sally explains that before the Interstate, cars came across the country in a whole different way and that before the Interstate “cut” through the land, the road “moved with the land … it rose, it fell, it curved.”
Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time, they drove on it to have a great time.
While Radiator Springs is bypassed to “save 10 minutes of driving,” it is a mythical composite of hundreds of communities across the nation that are constructively “cast aside” by highway engineers who cater to a new societal goal of getting from “point A to point B” as quickly and smoothly as possible. Roads lose their unique character as the villages and towns along the way fade into a forgotten yesterday. The countryside speeds by and distant glimpses of Americana rarely occur in sufficient time to catch the exit ramp. Tourist attractions slip out of sight and out of mind.
As the redesign of our highway system changes our culture, a similar fate was experienced by the shipping industry. Inexpensive vehicles and cheaper gasoline had long been transforming passenger rail. Low cost fuel and population shifts stripped rail carriers of being anything more than a means of moving bulk tonnage from one urban area to another. Business and industry in the towns along the way were neglected and suffered accordingly. Train traffic primarily became an interstate mode of shipping with no stops in the towns along the line.
The stark anonymity and invisibility of the landscape along the freight rail lines is best conveyed by Steve Goodman’s 1970 rail ballad lyrics “passing towns that have no names” and “through the Mississippi darkness” which ended with the chorus, “Good morning, America, how are you … Don’t you know me, I’m your native son … I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans … I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.”
Railroads in Oklahoma suffered accordingly. Names like Kansas City Southern, M-K-T and Rock Island are gone. Cross-country shippers like BNSF and Union Pacific barely survived.
Over the past 30 years, the state purchased 900 track miles of rail that would have otherwise been lost forever. Most have been returned to private ownership. Those that remain in state ownership are returning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to the state treasury.
One rail line that is – and should remain – in state ownership is the 97.5-mile Sooner Sub running between Oklahoma City and a point near Tulsa. Acquired in 1998 at a cost of just over $5 million, the Sooner Sub has paid to the state in the last two years alone more than $1.1 million in lease revenue.
Because it is state owned, the state is able to mandate that the line be used for passenger rail and for the benefit of new and existing businesses along the line, as opposed to being solely used to transport freight cross country.
To understand this distinction, one must simply understand the difference between a business located on a highway where traffic can enter and exit as opposed to a business located next to a freeway miles from any exit ramp.
While the Sooner Sub is being used also to transport freight across the country, Watco, the company that is managing it, works closely with the state and the communities and companies along the route to foster and incubate private enterprise.
In the past decade or so, this business model concept of growing local enterprise has resulted in approximately 14 new and thriving businesses on the Sooner Sub rail line creating jobs in communities like Luther, Chandler, Stroud, Bristow and Sapulpa.
Watco and Iowa Pacific are currently working toward OKC-Tulsa roundtrip passenger rail. They say that the Sooner Sub is on the verge of being ready for passenger rail speeds of up to 60 miles per hour with trip times comparable to vehicular travel.
Unfortunately, a large interstate shipper who is not concerned about the best interests of Oklahoma and whose business plan does not include passenger rail now wants to purchase the Sooner Sub to enhance its cross country rail transportation system. The small businesses that have located along the rail are concerned that the interstate shipping business model will be disruptive and detrimental to the small companies and the communities in which they are located. I believe that also.
Alarmingly, ODOT, the state agency that has the authority to sell the rail line, appears poised to do so. If the state sells the Sooner Sub, it will no longer be able to protect and foster business development or the establishment of passenger rail.
I urge you to investigate this matter as you should any issue facing Oklahoma and Oklahomans and take appropriate action. You can help these Oklahoma cities and towns remain vibrant and prevent them from being bypassed like Radiator Springs.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives