Important now: creating a safe, clean environment on public transportation is essential to the continuity of service. Operators, maintenance, cleaning crews, and customer care reps are critical.
It wasn’t the romance, nostalgia or je ne sais quoi of the streetcar concept that led Oklahoma City to build its new $135 million system downtown. The OKC Streetcar, which began service in December 2018, has far-reaching purpose and serves as a linchpin for the transforming downtown.
Considered an essential service, the new streetcars have not suspended service since the pandemic began, although service levels were reduced to match demand. Masks are mandatory on board streetcars to diminish the risk of virus spread. As expected, fare collection and advertising have been significantly reduced as well (see spreadsheet below outlining ridership through June).
The new streetcar system is part of a $777 million Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) and redevelopment project. It is also a defining feature supporting other enhancements such as a new convention center, 70-acre recreational park, and senior health and wellness centers – all to enrich the city, and all debt free.
A one-cent, voter-approved sales tax supports the entire project, bringing the combined state and city sales tax in OKC to 8.63 percent. Although the tax is high, the benefits are palpable.
The simple announcement of the streetcar project in 2011 set the economic engine revving. Since then, more than $1.6 billion in public and private investment has flowed into the three-block impact zone around the streetcar route, according to an impact study conducted by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and RegionTrack.
This includes a total of $801.9 million in private investment and $806 million in public investment to fund the Oklahoma City Convention Center; Scissortail Park; public infrastructure improvements; and Project 180, a $176 million redesign of downtown streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas.
The study also notes that the impact zone has gained:
Another hefty benefit for the city is an increase in the taxable market value of private properties along the streetcar route going from $1.1 billion in 2011 to $2.5 billion in 2017, or growth of more than 120 percent since the route was proposed. On a square-footage basis, values are up 80 percent over the same time. That’s more than three times the rate of citywide property values since 2011.
Moving Easily Between Districts
The OKC Streetcar also made perfect sense to efficiently transport people everywhere along the 4.8-mile route. Instead of driving and parking, then driving and parking again, workers, locals and tourists easily could experience any or all of the six downtown districts the city has to offer. And before the coronavirus struck, they were doing it.
With low fares of $1 for one hour (on and off) and $3 for a 24-hour pass, ridership of the streetcar was exceeding expectations with more than 500,000 passengers taking a trip since the system opened. An average of 16 riders per service hour on weekdays and 25 riders per service hour on weekends were hopping on the streetcars.
“In some ways, it’s better than what we planned because we didn’t know how people would react to a new and different service mode,” says Michael Scroggins, public information officer for EMBARK, a hybrid city department and public trust with its own governing board.
One of the goals for the streetcar is to get people to warm up to riding on various modes of public transportation.
“We’re a very car-centric community and the introduction of the streetcar has definitely improved people’s thoughts about public transit and how they can use it. We want them to branch out to different modes,” notes Scroggins.
The city is hoping to boost ridership on its buses, as well, and is in the process of building its first bus traffic express lane. A ferry and bike-share program are other options.
Any revenue generated from the streetcar, whether through fares or sponsorships, is used to support the overall operations of the service. Before the pandemic, approximately $700,000 was the budgeted revenue expected for fiscal year 2020. EMBARK hired Herzog Transit Services, Inc. to provide operations and maintenance services and in the current fiscal year paid the company $3.1 million. The expense is funded by the general fund and is part of the overall transit budget.
The SSO Challenge
The Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) State Safety Oversight (SSO) program for rail transit was fully in place by the time Oklahoma City began its streetcar planning process. In fact, the OKC Streetcar system was the first in the country to become certified and launch under the new regulations.
Jesse Rush, operations manager for EMBARK, knew the certification process would be a challenge and began submitting the proper documents 1.5 years ahead of the launch. It was barely enough time.
“We submitted and maintained 25,000 documents that we managed in preparation for going into service,” says Rush. “We knew it would be a lot, but not to that extent. There was definitely some crunch time close to opening.”
He stresses that it is important to start the process as early as possible, foster a good working relationship with the SSO and keep an open communication with your SSO.
At the local level, keeping in close contact with downtown city agencies was critical, especially as the opening approached. For example, Rush says EMBARK worked with firefighters to train them to work with the overhead wire that powers the streetcars.
“Ladder trucks can go to put out a fire and have the potential to touch the wire. Policies and processes were developed with the fire department to define those safety procedures,” he says.
Rush says his team was able to work well with everybody who would be impacted by the construction. Contact was made with the businesses and properties along the line to let them know that construction was coming and what to expect.
“We were in constant communication with them,” he says. “By doing that, we were able to build relationships with business and property owners, and companies downtown. It was a great process.”
Construction broke ground on February 7, 2017, and the project was complete in 14 months.
In the end, all of the preparation and planning helped the service to run extremely smoothly, says Rush.
“We have weathered flooding downtown, ice storms, and super high winds of 98 miles per hour,” he says. He points out that the city has never halted streetcar service, even during this pandemic.
Scroggins says that right now, “creating a safe space on our buses and streetcars is essential to the continuity of service. Our operators, maintenance and cleaning crews, [and] customer care reps are the bright stars in our ability to provide safe essential service every day.”
For more information contact Michael Scroggins at: firstname.lastname@example.org