Federal railroad legislation now before the U.S. Congress could help Oklahoma beef up its passenger rail service, but only if the State Legislature gives Oklahoma voters an opportunity to decide if additional state revenue should be raised for Amtrak.
That according to Senator Dave Herbert, who is pushing for a statewide vote on a proposed one-cent gasoline tax increase, with the proceeds earmarked for rail service expansion.
"The federal government is preparing to spend billions of dollars on passenger rail service, but the only states that will get a piece of that pie are the ones that are using some of their own money to expand their rail lines. If we miss this window of opportunity, that cash will be spent improving railroads in other states while our system withers on the vine," said Senator Herbert.
A bill before the U.S. Congress in Washington, DC would authorize Amtrak to use $10 billion worth of bond proceeds to develop high-speed rail corridors around the country. Any states interested in obtaining a portion of the money would have to match at least 20 percent of any Amtrak investment. Other federal railroad and transit funds are also available for state use, but Oklahoma won't be able to access any of them unless it increases its financial commitment to passenger rail service, according to Herbert.
"We're in a 'use it or lose it' situation. If we want to plug into the high-speed rail corridors of tomorrow, we have to make an investment today. Otherwise, we'll be left sitting on the sidelines while other states reap the economic benefits of high-speed rail travel," said Senator Herbert.
The Midwest City legislator is hoping to create a pool of revenue for passenger rail service by passing a temporary, one-cent gas tax increase. Under his proposal, voters will be asked to decide whether they want to approve the fuel hike for a 10-year period.
Senator Herbert's gas tax legislation will be introduced for consideration during the 2000 legislative session that begins February 7th.
"I like the idea of putting this issue in the hands of voters. If the success of the Heartland Flyer is any indication, the question should receive widespread public support," said Senator Herbert.
The lawmaker was referring to the state's only passenger rail line - the Heartland Flyer route between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. Since it was first opened last summer, the Heartland Flyer has greatly exceeded projected passenger counts.
Senator Herbert wants to extend the Heartland Flyer line to Tulsa and ultimately, Kansas City.
"There's plenty of federal money available to link Oklahoma City to Tulsa and beyond, but the only way we'll ever get our hands on it is by increasing the state's commitment to passenger rail service. I think voters will do that if we give them the opportunity," said Senator Herbert.