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Oklahoma's Lack of Budget Planning puts the Heartland Flyer in Jeopardy

Thursday, December 1, 2016 2:17 PM

Posted by Gary Lanman

Though they have no trouble wasting money elsewhere and handing out subsidies to cronies in the energy industry, Oklahoma lawmakers share a zeal to get rid of passenger rail service once and for all.

With the state's budget foundering, all subsidies should be scrutinized. But since the Heartland Flyer started operation in 1999, the tourism industry in Oklahoma and Texas has reaped the benefits of this nostalgic American tradition, and with proper promotion, there's every reason to believe that will continue. That matters to people in Oklahoma City, as well as communities like Norman, Purcell, Pauls Valley and Ardmore, where charming old train stations have been refurbished to welcome visitors. But it matters little to legislators, most of whom can see no personal benefit, and are disturbingly short-sighted in their approach to governing.

CNHI Reporter Janelle Stecklein reported last month that lawmakers are again questioning the viability of the service, and they point to declines in ridership as the reason for their skepticism. They repeated their suspicion that Texas is benefiting more from the Flyer than Oklahoma, and complain the $3 million from state coffers could be put to better use elsewhere. It's true ridership has fallen about 25 percent over the past five years, as asserted by Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer. But his speculation that it's because people may view it as an "amusement ride" - and that everyone has "been there, done that" - might be based on flawed assumptions.

Amtrak reports 66,000 took the Flyer in 2015, which Oklahoma Department of Transportation Director Mike Patterson says indicates many people are using it as a mode of transportation. A few years ago, the Daily Press published a series on the train, and found many older and lower-income folks prefer it to flying or driving along this route. Many local residents have driven to Oklahoma City and taken the Flyer for a weekend excursion to Fort Worth.

Though tickets are reasonably priced, it's more likely that low gasoline prices are to blame for the drop-off in ridership. The train offers freedom to travelers; riders can enjoy a sandwich or cocktail while en route, read the newspaper or take a nap, without worrying about navigating a route, aggressive drivers, and Oklahoma's notoriously poor highways. On the other hand, the stops are limited, and if the destination is a city not on the line, lower fuel prices may contribute to the decision to drive. But fuel prices will almost certainly creep back up - and if they don't, Oklahoma will have other problems more serious than funding the train. And with President-Elect Donald Trump promising to do something about the country's crumbling infrastructure, this state would do well to stay the course with passenger rail. In fact, as advocates suggest, officials should take a more serious look at putting the Norther Flyer back on the front burner.

The Chickasaw Nation is looking to build a train platform to link up its Thackerville casino. Kansas officials want in on the action for the northern route, and Ardmore and Oklahoma City are already investing in infrastructure along the line. There are many other funding options, for anyone with the foresight, determination and energy to pursue them. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce has pledged to oppose any funding reduction for the Flyer, and that entity is worth listening to. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to observe the tremendous growth Bricktown has enjoyed.

There's plenty of waste in the state budget that lawmakers can cut first. The Heartland Flyer shouldn't on the chopping block until all other options are exhausted.

Talequah Daily Press