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Let’s ride: OKC streetcar vision comes to life
The city’s new downtown streetcar system accepted its first riders Friday, setting aside fares for a few weeks to allow for cultural acclimation.
The launch was decades in the making, Mayor David Holt said. Twenty-five years ago voters approved the first Metropolitan Area Projects temporary sales tax, an issue that would be successful enough to drive a second and third iteration, ultimately producing $777 million in MAPS 3. Of that total, about $135 million was earmarked for a modern streetcar. The public supported a similar project in the first MAPS, Holt said, but it had to wait on other demands.
“Tomorrow has finally arrived,” Holt said just before inviting the public to board. “It makes a huge difference to our economic development opportunities, our visitor opportunities, and it’s a fundamental aspect of a comprehensive mass transit system. But more than that, it’s an inspiration as we think ahead about the future.
“As you know, we’re engaged in a MAPS 4 conversation now. This is a reminder that the things you dream of can happen,” he said.
Teacher Felix Linden attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony so he could report back to his students at Roosevelt Middle School. Linden and other attendees said they shared Holt’s sense of historic accomplishment at the Leadership Square streetcar station.
“It’s definitely worth taxpayers’ money,” Linden said. “It promotes the city; it promotes progress; it elevates our status and everything that we’re trying to do for the city. Big-league cities have big-league public transportation.”
COTPA Trustee James Cooper agreed that the project is worth the investment, even though naysayers have alleged such a small system – about 7 miles in two loops – will be seen primarily as a tourist attraction. The Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority, or COTPA, is a key player in the ongoing development of a larger mass-transit system across multiple municipalities. The downtown streetcar is the first step, he said, which means the true payoff might still be years down the road.
Cooper has already adapted to mass transit; he uses the bus line and rides his bicycle downtown on a regular basis. Linden’s most recent rail or bus ride was a year ago when he took students on a Road Scholars Program field trip. Mike Knopp, executive director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, also attended the ribbon-cutting and said his last mass transit experience was last year in Kansas City. Aubrey McDermid, the city’s director of planning, couldn’t remember the last time she had been on a bus or streetcar in any city.
They all expressed intent to make the most of Oklahoma City’s new system and buy yearlong passes – a promise easier to make while trying to avoid the wind with temperatures in the 40s.
“If you’re downtown, the streetcar is going to be the coolest way to get around – just hop on, hop off,” McDermid said.
The streetcar system will be free to the public through Jan. 5. After that, fares will be $1 for a single ride, $3 for a 24-hour pass, $32 for a 30-day pass and $384 for an annual pass. Daily, seven-day and 30-day Embark bus passes also include streetcar service. Route maps, platform locations and other related information is available online at okcstreetcar.com.
The streetcar has 22 stops along the full route, two loops that run as far south as SW Third Street, north to Midtown at NW 11th, west as far as Dewey Avenue, and east through Bricktown to Russell M. Perry Avenue.
Five of the city’s seven cars were running Friday, each with a capacity of about 100 people. COTPA spokesman Michael Scroggins said the others can be brought online in response to demand or to allow for repairs. Streetcar speeds reach up to 30 mph in some stretches, the downtown speed limit.
Some riders struggled with the coordination of disembarking with the rest of their party, resulting in several delayed stops. Scroggins said afternoon data showed travelers were waiting 15-18 minutes between cars Friday.
Thanks to a donation of technology by Edmond-based U.S. Fleet, expected car arrival times were posted at each stop, continuously adjusted with GPS data depending on conditions elsewhere in the system. Scroggins said officials are looking into the possibility of a smartphone app.
Riders showed their appreciation for streetcar conductors Friday with applause during shift changes. Scroggins said he was trying to ignore social media feedback during one of the circuits with his family so that he could experience it just like everyone else.
Debe Staten, a member of the Oklahoma City Senior Citizens Association for the Deaf, enjoyed the first-day ride with about 17 other members of OKCSCAD. Only one of them actually works downtown.
“They wanted to join the fun,” Staten said of the group. “They were thrilled with it. Many of them said they would go back again so they wouldn’t have to drive so much. It’s hard to drive and sign at the same time. This is going to change things.”