Economic development expected from Oklahoma City Crosstown relocation

Sunday, August 7th 2005, 5:44 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Congress' passage of $130 million more in funding to relocate Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City has officials here envisioning everything from a golf course to new urban housing in an expanding downtown area.

Roy Williams has heard it all. As executive director of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, he's heard from parties interested in building a sports complex or even a giant green space similar to New York City's Central Park once the interstate is knocked off its stilts and moved five blocks south.

As it stands now, the high-rise buildings, convention center and arena that make up downtown Oklahoma City are all north of I-40. By moving the freeway south, more land adjacent to the downtown area will be opened for development. A downtown boulevard will be built along the old path.

``Right now, the interstate is perceived as a sort of barrier,'' Williams said. ``Downtown is not south of the interstate. It's north of the interstate.''

The $130 million in the transportation bill, which is awaiting President Bush's approval, would place Oklahoma more than $300 million on its way to funding the approximately $360 million project. The state Department of Transportation awarded the project's first contract this week.

While the economic impact of the project may be significant, the primary reason for relocating this four-mile section of highway called the Crosstown Expressway is motorist safety. When the section of I-40 between Interstates 44 and 35 was built, officials believed the Crosstown would never carry more than 76,000 vehicles per day, said John Bowman, a project development engineer for the Transportation Department. It's now carrying about 119,000 each day.

Interstate 40 is one of the nation's main east-west links.

The Transportation Department breaks the Crosstown into seven segments. Of those, six are rated ``critically high'' in terms of the number of accidents.

The new highway will have 10 lanes, four more than the current freeway. It will have wider shoulders to provide drivers more room for error and more space between exits to give motorists additional space for accelerating and merging.

Most of the new stretch of highway will be at ground level instead of elevated and replace a layout that has too many curves to meet today's standards.

``We talk about safety, and there are some real concerns for us there,'' Bowman said.

Tom Elmore, executive director of the North American Transportation Institute in Moore, has taken issue with the picture of the Crosstown the Transportation Department has painted.

He disputes transportation officials' claims that a new Interstate 40 and a downtown boulevard can be built for less than it would cost to simply upgrade the current highway. And he questions the drive to build another highway at a time when the Transportation Department has millions of dollars in backlogged projects.

He contends the Crosstown could be redecked for less than $50 million, and that it could be done without unnecessarily disrupting the rail yard at Union Station, which he envisions as the ideal hub for a light rail system in the state.

``It amounts to robbery of future generations to stuff the pockets of the special interests, and it limits Oklahoma's transportation options for the for the foreseeable future,'' Elmore said.

Transportation officials say that the Union Station building will not be affected, but a cap will be placed on a tunnel linking passengers and freight to three platforms in the rail yard. In the event that Oklahoma City adds a light rail service, Bowman said those tunnels could be uncapped and used again.

However, he said Oklahoma City officials have indicated they prefer to use a different transit hub that is nearer to the Bricktown entertainment district and that transportation officials consider easier to connect with the airport area if necessary.

``One of the things we looked at was how that would impact rail service in the future,'' Bowman said.

Elmore says transportation officials didn't take the potential of Union Station into consideration when they were considering how to deal with the aging interstate.

``The power of this facility is that our existing corridors for this complex are so incredibly good that it could literally vault us to the leading edge of the modern transportation competition in the West within a few years,'' Elmore said. ``Without it, we're starting from ground zero. We've got nothing to start with.''

Garl Latham, principal of Dallas-based railroad consulting firm Latham Railway Services, said Union Station is in a unique position for Oklahoma City because all rail lines were routed to serve it.

Railroad lines from the station connect to Will Rogers World Airport and to the Mustang and Tuttle areas that were among the fastest growing in recent census data. Beyond that, the rail lines run northeast to Tulsa, north to Edmond and Guthrie, east through Shawnee to the Arkansas border and west through Yukon to the Texas Panhandle.

``It shows such a total lack of vision ...,'' Latham said of the Crosstown relocation. ``As little as 10 to 15 years down the road, people in Oklahoma City will be kicking themselves.''

One thing Elmore does not dispute is the belief that moving the interstate would lead to economic development south of the current downtown area. But he said adding light rail service _ as cities including Dallas and Denver did using their Union Stations as hubs _ would help alleviate parking and traffic problems.

``Here's the key reason that this moment in time is so important,'' Elmore said. ``We are now surrounded by Western cities with highly successful transit. They've been tested, tried and people love them so much that people consistently fund them with new bond initiatives and other funding.

``They wouldn't do that if they didn't want them.''

Oklahoma City's downtown area has already been revitalized once. The passage of MAPS, a $238 million tax increase, helped turn an abandoned warehouse district into the now-bustling Bricktown area.

Frank Sims, executive director of the Bricktown Association, said moving the Crosstown could lead to another revitalization _ in part because of a new six-lane boulevard that will be built at ground level where Interstate 40 currently runs. Transportation officials envision the boulevard providing easier, safer access to the downtown area.

``We believe it's going to be a real boon to the area,'' Sims said.

Williams, the chamber director, said Oklahoma City residents may know their way around the city, but visitors struggle to know where to exit from the elevated highway to get where they want to go.

``It will make downtown much easier and simple,'' Williams said. ``When you have a high-rise interstate, you see it down there, but you don't know how to get there.''