By early July, the 97.5 mile rail line between Midwest City and Sapulpa known as the Sooner Sub will be privately owned. Passenger rail advocates have fought the sale for years, but they’re feeling optimistic right now.
The Oklahoma Transportation Commission knocked out all but the last item of its agenda in about 20 minutes Monday. After a 10-minute recess, Chairman Greg Love moved on to the topic most people came for: Discussion on the sale of the Sooner Sub line.
Department of Transportation Director Mike Patterson and Secretary of Commerce Larry Parnam spoke about the selection committee’s role and recommendation for 30 minutes. Parnam quickly made clear the direction the committee went.
"And I paraphrase, lines of railroad — rail lines — acquired by the department be operated by private carriers and when feasible, where feasible, returned to the private sector and reinstated to the ad valorem tax rolls at the earliest possible time," Parnam said.
After another 30 minutes of questions and some words of caution from state Rep. Richard Morrissette, the commissioners were ready to vote. They unanimously approved the sale to SLWC.
Passenger rail advocates have urged the state for years to hold onto the Sooner Sub, so Bob Rounsavell's reaction was surprising.
"Hey, we’re gonna have train service," Rounsavell said, laughing.
Rounsavell served on the Eastern Flyer Passenger Rail Task Force in 2012.
"Not quite the way that I was seeing it in my mind’s eye, but we’re going to get it," he said.
Evan Stair with Passenger Rail Oklahoma said he’s cautiously optimistic.
"The challenges are still in getting passenger trains into downtown Tulsa and into downtown Oklahoma City," Stair said.
The Sooner Sub doesn’t include about 18 miles of BNSF-owned track between Sapulpa and Tulsa. It’s unclear whether lease provisions for passenger service made during the sale of that railway can be used by SLWC now.
CEO Rick Webb wants to move quickly on passenger service, anticipating a launch sometime in the fall. Stair said it’s possible to launch too soon on tracks that need upgrading to handle faster speeds. Right now they’re rated for a top speed of 30 mph for passenger trains.
"The excursion trains that ran in February from Iowa Pacific were fairly slow and the run was still somewhat awkward. The train swayed quite a bit," Stair said.
SLWC's bid says the company will upgrade the tracks within seven years to handle 60 mph. Rounsavell said Oklahomans must show they want passenger rail in the meantime.
"We’re going to have train service now, and we’re going to have to want it bad enough to work out the problems and be patient until we get that done," Rounsavell said.
All aspects of passenger service, from ticket prices to the number of daily trips, will be up to SLWC. Iowa Pacific, its partner in the endeavor, told state officials it was ready to offer regular service in February.
The minimum requirement for passenger rail service is a six-month pilot program running one train five days a week within five years of the sale’s closing date. SLWC will be fined $2.8 million if it doesn’t offer at least that level of service.