Officials consider free rides as streetcar plans move forward

Mort recent streetcar route proposal that was presented to the Oklahoma City city council earlier this month. (Provided by NewsOK.com)

Oklahoma City’s proposed downtown streetcar will be built with $130 million of tax payer money approved by voters in 2010, but that does not include the money it will take to operate the system and transit and city officials are considering a variety of options.

“We are only going to have the cash to build it, that doesn’t fund the operation of it at all,” Michael Scroggins, the public information officer for the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority, said in a special report published on this blog earlier this month. “That still is a locally made decision that we are gong to have to look at, the city is going to have to fund that, as it stands right now, out of the local general share budget of Oklahoma City.”

A variety of options are being considered on how to fund the operation of the proposed seven-mile line but the fares collected from riders would not be enough, if they were collected at all.

“We are looking at the possibility of making the (streetcar) free to riders,” Zane Boatright, vice chair of the streetcar committee said in an interview with OKC Uptowner. “It’s actually expensive to charge people a fare because of the equipment that’s involved. One option is to make the line free.”

While the specific funding source for the streetcar’s operation is unknown, the city expects the economic development spurred by the project to help offset the cost. In a presentation to the Oklahoma City city council this month, transit officials said construction on the streetcar could begin as soon as 2014 with the first phase of the line running by 2021.

A more detailed route proposal was also submitted to the city council and City Public Works Director Eric Wenger said other details of the project have not been finalized as the city continues to determine how the streetcar line will fit in with other transit and business developments.

“We have not selected things like track types or the power system for the car,” Wenger said in a NewsOK article. “So there’s a lot of planning we can do with ODOT at this point making sure we don’t put ourselves into a corner, but at the same time we’ve got to wait for some of the consulting to occur so that we know exactly what it is that we’re going to construct.”

Better Block OKC hopes to transform Midtown community

Volunteers with Better Block OKC meet at 7th Street and Hudson to plan for an upcoming event. (Photo by Better Block OKC)

A new community revitalization project will kickoff next month as dozens of volunteers hope to show the potential of what one square block in Midtown could look like in the future.

Better Block OKC, a project by ULI Oklahoma, will hold its first event May 18 and 19 at NW 7th Street and Hudson in Oklahoma City, using temporary infrastructure and street-life structures to show what the neighborhood could look like with some additional planning.

The square block has already experienced something of a transformation over the years with several new businesses moving in, including Caydence Yogo, the farm-to-table restaurant Ludivine and Elemental Coffee. Better Block OKC will enhance the block for two days with outdoor seating, a newsstand, bike racks and a dog park. The goal is to help area residents and businesses imagine what the area could look like with just a few simple additions.

“You take a block that is overlooked now and make it the best block you can for the weekend with a lot of volunteerism and recycled materials,” Allison Bailey, an organizer with Better Block OKC, told News OK.

Area business owners hope the event will inspire property owners to make improvements to their buildings and will inspire entrepreneurs to consider opening a business in the neighborhood.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun for everyone,” said Mandy Lathan, owner of Caydence Yoga, which is located on the corner of 7th and Hudson. “This is going to help bring into focus what it is we imagine this community becoming.”

Several communities in urban Oklahoma City have experienced revitalization projects as neighborhoods such as the Plaza District and the Paseo Arts District have seen dozens of new businesses open. However, Better Block OKC hopes to show that a smaller area can experience its own revitalization with just a few creative additions, such as flowerbeds and handmade bike racks.

Modeled after other Better Block projects across the country, Better Block OKC is an all day experience on May 18 and 19 and will also coincide with H&8th, a temporary food truck trailer park that will set up at the block on May 18 at 7 p.m.


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BELOW: This video shows Jason Roberts explaining the Better Block process in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood, drawing inspiration from other communities that have complete streets. Video is produced by betterblock.org

 

Push reel lawnmowers provide a unique way to cut the grass

Push Reel Lawnmower from Ben Felder on Vimeo.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that 5 percent of all air pollution is caused by gasoline-powered lawnmowers and other gardening devices, but one way to help reduce the pollutants while cutting your lawn is by using a push reel lawnmower that gets all its power from you.

To operate a push reel lawnmower you simply walk forward and the spinning wheels drive the blades. Push reel lawnmowers are nearly as easy to use as a traditional gas-powered lawnmower, causes no pollution and does a great job on even lawns with high grass.

Not only does a push reel lawnmower reduce the amount of emissions allowed into the air, it also reduces the risk of gasoline spills. In fact, the EPA reports 17 million gallons of gasoline is spilled each year in the course of refilling gas-powered lawnmowers. That’s more gasoline than the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.

Push reel lawnmowers are great for the environment, save money on gas and are fun to use.

The three restrictions for open records requests for school districts in Oklahoma

The public and media has a right to request certain pieces of information from public bodies with certain restrictions in place on what information can be made pubic. When it comes to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and making open records requests of public school districts in Oklahoma there are three specific restrictions in place on what information can be turned over to the public or media.

According to Oklahoma Statute 51 24A.16, the public does not have a right to individual student records, teacher lesson plans, tests and other teaching materials, and personal communications concerning individual students. This means Oklahoma school districts are allowed to keep personnel records confidential, including “transcripts from institutions of higher education maintained in the personnel files of certified public school employees (51 O.S. 24A.7).” However, the statute also provides access to records of any “final disciplinary action resulting in loss of pay, suspension, demotion of position, or termination.”

Open records appear to have more stipulations when dealing with school districts than other public bodies, and for good reason as school districts deal with minors (students) and a large number of employees (teacher). Because of the added stipulations and the fact that school districts are often a community’s largest employer and deal with children, education systems can sometimes seem to come under a higher amount of scrutiny than other public bodies.

“I think schools are more scrutinized by the media and public than most local governments,” James While, superintendent of Piedmont Public Schools in Oklahoma, said. “We are expected to be transparent with all of our finances, curriculum, etc.  I don’t believe local governments have the same type of expectations.”

White also believes school employees are sometimes held in a harsher light than employees of other public bodies.

“When one school or school employee makes a mistake in the state, other schools see an increase in (open records) requests,” White added.

Possibly no other public body has its hired staff put on such display as school districts do. In city government the media sometimes scrutinizes cops and firefighters, but it’s often the elected officials, such as the mayor and city councilmen, that bear the brunt of media scrutiny. At the state and federal level it is also elected officials that receive the most attention, but in school districts the teachers, who are hired and not elected, receive a lot of attention when it comes to education scrutiny.

An example of the messiness that can sometimes come from open records requests for school districts was recently brought to the New York State Court of Appeal, which ruled a request from 12 news agencies for the results of thousands of New York City teachers’ ratings should be granted. The United Federation of Teachers challenged the request for the performance reviews and said disclosure of the Teacher Data Reports would violate teachers’ privacy right but the court disagreed.

In an interview with the New York Times, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott, the top executive of the New York Public School system, said he was all for transparency but worried the release of teacher performance data could result in low morale.

“I don’t have a problem with names being out there, because we should be transparent,” Walcott said. “But on the other hand I have a responsibility to make sure that we protect our work force as well, and not to have newspaper stories denigrate my work force, because they’re working their butts off to do their job.”

It can sometimes seem like a slippery slope when discussing what information regarding a teacher should be made public. On one hand teachers are employees that should enjoy some of the protections of other private, non-elected workers. But, teachers also work closely with students and are responsible for carrying out state and federal guidelines, making them more than just your average private citizen.

However, if there is a piece of information that you feel you have a right to see then the best course of action is to ask and see what happens. Members of the media sometimes have a better course of action to take if their open records request is denied, such as filing a lawsuit, as was the case this year in New York. But the public has a right to make its own open records requests and, often times, it is the public that is the largest maker of requests in many states, such as Illinois, where John Sharp, the director of government affairs for the Illinois Press Association, said the FOIA is one of the tools a journalist uses, but is often times “the only tool” public citizens have in gaining access to information.

Another thing to keep in mind when making an open records request of a school district or any public body is Oklahoma is one of 15 states with no mandated response time for FOIA requests. You have the right to a lot of information but you might have to wait for it.

Website comments and issues of libel

Moderating reader comments have become my least favorite job as editor of PiedmontToday.com, the Piedmont-Surrey Gazette’s website. With political turmoil at an all time high, each story concerning the city council, mayor and city government is met with a wave of reader comments, the majority of which are malicious, insulting and downright rude.

Examples of some of the comments include:

“This man is a complete fraud and shouldn’t be allowed to even work a register at McDonalds,” one commenter with the name LMG Blanchard Resident said about the recently removed police chief.

“Our mayor Thomerson sucks as a competent mayor and I can say her three hombres on the council do too,” wrote Piedmont Taxpayer.

Those are just a couple examples of comments that contained insulting language, not to mention the dozens a day I delete that make accusations and insults that are hard to imagine anyone making on their own worst enemy.

Most of the derogatory comments are done anonymously, but in reality nearly every online comment is done with some form of privacy because even actual names could be made up. As Arianna Huffington said recently in a New York Times article discussing newspaper website comments, anonymity is an Internet norm.

“It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” the Huffington Post founder said. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”

(Ben Felder/OKC Uptowner)

However, besides the vile tone that many of the comments take and the anonymity that posters hide behind, the biggest concern I have is whether or not a newspaper, news site or blog could be held accountable for the comments made, especially in a potential libel case?

“It’s a hard balance to find,” said Roger Pugh, publisher of the Gazette. “We don’t want to be in the business of censoring people but we don’t want to be irresponsible with what we allow to be posted, especially when it comes to potential legal issues related to defamation and libel.”

The Associated Press Stylebook suggests that 95 percent of libel suits result from the routine publication of charges of crime, immorality, incompetence or inefficiency with the basic definition of libel as a written defamation that injures a person’s reputation. The Gazette’s commenting policy includes the deletion of any comments that make accusations of illegal activity, but deleting accusations of inefficiency and incompetence are a much harder standard to follow. However, there is some leeway when it comes to statements of opinion, which website comments fall under.

The Citizen Media Law Project explains the protection of opinions by saying, “You can safely state your opinion that others are inept, stupid, jerks, failures, etc. even though these statements might hurt the subject’s feelings or diminish their reputation,” because these statements are not ale to be proven accurate or false and are referred to as pure opinion.

However, opinions based facts that can be proven inaccurate may not be protected. If a person were to write, ‘in my opinion, the governor is stealing government funds’ the reader would assume that the person had based their opinion on factual evidence. If there was no evidence then the statement could be deemed as defamation, even though the statement was prefaced with “in my opinion.”

(Ben Felder/OKC Uptowner)

The issue of newspapers being held accountable for website comments found its way to a courtroom in 2010 when a Purdue University student filed a lawsuit against the Journal-Record newspaper as a result of “accusatory statements” made by online commenters about the student that accused him of being involved in a missing persons case. Jeffrey Neuburger, co-chair of the Technology, Media and Communications Practice Group, reported that in the case of Collins v. Purdue University, which included a libel suit against the newspaper, a federal court ruled that Section 230 of he federal Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects newspapers from being held liable for comments made by third parties online.

“Had the same accusatory third-party comments been published in the newspaper’s print edition – say in a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece – the newspaper might have had a much harder time avoiding liability,” Neuburger wrote. “That’s because the legal rule in Section 230 of the CDA that is applicable to liability for online statements made by another party is much more favorable to a publisher than the legal rules applicable to liability for third-party statements in a print publication.”

Basically, the act means a website operator cannot be treated as a publisher or distributor when it comes to statements made by a third-party user.

The Act provides some protection for newspapers and blogs that might struggle with finding the time to moderate hundreds of comments each day or in finding the line when it comes to what comments should be deleted and which should be published. But commonsense is still a tool for the journalist and if a comment seems like it might cause you problems down the road, it’s best to delete it from your site.

Moving Forward: Reader responses and city comparisons

Following last week’s video introduction of OKC: Moving Forward, Mick Berkley sent me an email expressing his own views of public transit in Oklahoma City.

“So much synergy right now when it comes to urban development in OKC, but the issue of transit always seems to be on the back burner,” Berkley said in his email. “For a city our size, OKC should really be much further along than we are when it comes to buses, rail and bikability. Looking forward to your assessment of this issue.”

Berkley, who mentioned he has previously lived in Dallas and Austin, said he viewed the lack of available transit options as a major factor in holding back the city’s quest for true urban development, as well as addressing the challenges the city’s working class poor already face.

Like Berkley, any urban dweller of Oklahoma City who has visited larger cities as seen firsthand the improvement a strong public transit system can make in a city. Getting from point A to point B is a daily challenge that we all face, and that is why OKC: Moving Forward is such an important multimedia project when it comes to covering Oklahoma City’s urban communities.

Another reader of OKC Uptowner wondered how Oklahoma City’s transit system compared to cities of similar size in the area. She knew that OKC’s system was lacking, but asked me at a recent event if all area cities were lacking when it came to public transit. Three cities of various sizes that Oklahoma City commonly gets compared to are Dallas, Kansas City and Tulsa. Here is a snapshot of transit options in those cities.

 

Dallas Area Rapid Transit includes the DART light rail system, which began operation in 1996. Two rail lines are currently in service with two additional lines either under construction or in the planning stages. The DART system includes 113 bus routes, two light rail lines, one commuter rail line and a daily ridership of over 225,000, according to DART’s website. (Photo from DART.org)

 

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority includes 60 bus routes and two express bus routes. The express bus route, called MAX, operates like a rail line with dedicated stations and prepayment options. According to the KCATA, the entire transit system has a daily ridership of over 125,000. (Photo from KCATA’s website)

 

Tulsa Transit services nearly 10,000 riders a day with 21 bus routes. (Photo courtesy of Tulsa News 6/News6Tulsa.com)

Introducing OKC: Moving Forward

Improved public transportation has long been a cry from Oklahoma City residents and voters approved a $120 million streetcar line in 2009 in an effort to jump start public transit improvements. But what is currently being done to improve the city’s ability to move without having to get behind the wheel of a car?
This short video introduces “OKC: Moving Forward,” a multimedia project that will explore the shortcomings in the city’s public transit system, where improvements are needed and what is being done to address these issues.

Link to Diigo reading list

Streetcar moves forward

Introducing OKC Moving Forward

To say public transportation in Oklahoma City is lacking is an understatement. The pedestrian organization Walk Score rated the city No. 48 out of the nation’s top 50 cities for walkability and listed smaller communities such as Topeka and Waco higher . Bicycling.com didn’t even include OKC in its list of top 50 biking cities and this article was published on a Sunday, a day when bus service in the city doesn’t even operate.

The saying often goes that great cities have great transit systems. In many respects Oklahoma City is a great city, but it hardly has a great transit system. The city has spent the past decade improving its downtown entertainment district, brought in a NBA team and has made strides with its education system. But now more attention is being paid to the issue of public transit and how to make OKC not as car-centric. Residents seem to be more willing to embrace public transit and biking as a form of commuting is growing, as evident in recent “Bike to Work” events (see video clip below).

Plans are in place for improved bus service, bike lanes and a new downtown streetcar system, but even with voter-approved money earmarked for such transit projects some wonder if there is still enough funding to see the projects get done. As Steve Lackmeyer, the Oklahoman’s city beat writer wondered recently in a tweet, “with such (financial) challenges, (how does the city) plans to pay for operation of new Core to Shore park, streetcar system?” The Oklahoman’s city government writer Michael Kimball responded to Lackmeyer by saying OKC’s budget director believes there are expanded funding options that “include more sales tax, fuel tax, streamlined online sales tax, property tax for operations,” but none of those additional funds have been committed to transit projects as of yet.

As the city looks to improve its non-automobile transportation network a special report over the next several months on OKC Uptowner will take a closer look at the details of that effort. How much is OKC’s transit system costing taxpayers, and how will future improvements increase that price tag? What routes are being planned concerning the streetcar system and what segments of the population will it serve, and who will it ignore? These questions and more will attempt to be answered in the special multimedia report entitled, “OKC Moving Forward.” The multimedia package will also take a closer look at how Oklahoma City compares to other cities of similar size when it comes to transit services and additional research will be done on the proposed streetcar line for downtown, which has already been approved by voters but has appeared to hit some delays.

To join the conversation, share thoughts and questions, and follow this ongoing report, tweet with the hashtag #okctransit or follow OKC Uptowner on Facebook. You can also follow the OKC Uptowner on Twitter by scanning the QR code on the right side of the homepage.

VIDEO: Bike to Word growing in popularity

VIDEO: Streetcar rendering

 

MLK parade draws thousands downtown

Thousands attended Monday's Martin Luther King, Jr. parade held in downtown Oklahoma City. (Ben Felder/OKC Uptowner)

A crowd of several thousand lined the streets of downtown Oklahoma City on Monday as the 25th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. parade made its way down Broadway, featuring floats of multicultural churches walking hand-in-hand, activist organizations promoting various social issues and enough marching bands and music to make the unseasonably warm January day feel more like a summer block party.

Jessica Ramsey, 37, tweeted from along the parade route that each year she comes for the celebration it makes her “wish my father could be her to see it.” Ramsey said her father was an active member of the civil rights campaign in the 1960’s and would be pleased to see Oklahoma City’s MLK parade grow into one of the largest in the southwest.

“It’s not like the African American community doesn’t still have challenges – really all people groups in the city do,” she said. “But when you see a celebration like this you realize how far we have come and how much of a sacrifice people like King and my father gave to see our country move forward.”

Before the afternoon parade, a prayer breakfast and job fair were held in Oklahoma City, followed by an 11 a.m. Mass at Corpus Christi Catholic Church. A multicultural ceremony was held after the Mass featuring a reenactment of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech and various other performances. Each event referenced the city’s parade theme, which is “Together we rise” and a call for non-violence in the fight for justice.

“We join in solidarity with those who are in need, and working for ways to improve their lives,” said Becky Van Pool, director of Catholic Charities Parish Outreach. “We are challenged to pray and work for all those who are poor and marginalized.”
Despite the celebration of King’s legacy and the many successes of the Civil Rights era, the dozens of social organizations on hand at the parade gave attention to the fact that many challenges still plague the African American and urban community.

Hundreds of parade floats featured various social organizations, local churches and marching bands. (Ben Felder/OKC Uptowner)

“It’s a day to be happy in how far we have come,” Ramsey said during the parade. “But even more than that, today is about remembering that we still have work to do…and the work has to be done by all of us.”

Find more photos here.

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