March 13-- The planned sale of a state-owned rail line between Oklahoma City and Sapulpa should not stifle Tulsa officials' hopes of using the line for passenger rail service, transportation officials said Tuesday.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation began preparations to sell the 95.7-mile Sooner Sub line after receiving unsolicited offers from four railroad companies late last year, but it would ensure that a provision of the sale contract forces the new owner to accommodate future passenger service, ODOT Engineering Director David Streb said.
A sale is expected by Sept. 1, according to an ODOT document.
The line, which runs along and south of Interstate 44, is the only direct rail connection between the state's two largest cities and has been a recent focus of the long-standing effort to bring passenger service to northeastern Oklahoma.
It would need significant upgrades to meet passenger rail standards, but officials say such work -- recently estimated at $223.5 million -- would be far cheaper than building a new line.
Streb argued that private ownership has been successful with the Oklahoma City-to-Dallas Heartland Flyer, where Amtrak passenger trains share a Burlington Northern Santa Fe line with freight trains. He added that a private owner for the Sooner Sub line might also be willing to fund the upgrades necessary for passenger service.
"Instead of the sale of the Sooner Sub line hampering prospects for passenger rail, I'm going to tell you it would enhance it," Streb said.
"A private railroad has much more resources to upgrade that line than the state of Oklahoma. We're running on a shoe-string budget, and we can barely keep the rail lines operational."
Rick Westcott, who last year headed a Tulsa City Council committee that supported upgrading the Sooner Sub line with state funds, said Tuesday that he strongly opposes selling the line even with a requirement to accommodate passenger service.
"It will severely damage, if not destroy, any hope for successful passenger rail service for Tulsa and all of northeast Oklahoma," he said.
Westcott's group, the Eastern Flyer Passenger Rail Development Committee, advised a state task force in November to maintain state control of the line partly to ensure that the best passenger service provider is selected.
He said Tuesday that any new owner would likely have the authority to choose the provider unilaterally. One likely suitor, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, has a history of using Amtrak -- a company Westcott opposes for the Sooner Sub line.
He said the company likely would run just one train a day in each direction and would be unable to provide special trains for events, unlike providers that have told the city they would have at least three or four daily departures and arrivals.
"It would be setting it up for failure," Westcott said.
Streb said the state began buying dilapidated railways such as the Sooner Sub line in the 1980s to protect them from being sold for scrap material and to keep them active by leasing them. The lines have been sold back to private companies as interest in them builds.
The renewed interest in the Sooner Sub line means the state's job there is finished, Streb said.
The Sooner Sub line is leased through 2017 to Pittsburg, Kan.-based Watco Cos., which owns the South Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad. Streb said any sale contract would also have a provision allowing Watco to continue using the line.
ODOT is in the process of assessing the line's value and likely will solicit bids to sell it after that, he said. The expected sale date was noted in a Jan. 28 letter from ODOT Director Gary Ridley to Watco President Rick Webb. The letter was included in a city news release Tuesday.
Zack Stoycoff 918-581-8486
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