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A Better View of the Boulevard Design "Scored" Highest by ODOT

by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: May 9, 2014 at 2:25 pm •  Published: May 8, 2014
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Imagine being a student and being able to determine what criteria will be used to determine the grade on your test. And imagine being the one able to then “score” that test and determining the grade for your own work.
And imagine, when you get that test done and graded, you don’t have a presentation of your work to your parents and teachers, you just post up all the possible answers you considered before answering your test, and posted the criteria showing how each answer might have scored on your test, proving that your ultimate answers were right. You don’t provide the parents and teachers with an advance review of the test and the scores, and you schedule this “meeting” where they can simply look at it all for themselves at a place and time that will be perceived as very intimidating or inconvenient to attend.
Dear Oklahoma Department of Transportation: I spoke to quite a few people who were able to attend the open house last night. They resented your choice of the Cox Convention Center, with parking being at the Santa Fe Garage two blocks away, on a night where many people were planning to either attend the Thunder play-off game or watch it on television. They didn’t see this as a well thought out location or time.
I asked you guys about why these designs could not be posted online in advance. You said it was because these things were being tweaked right up to the display (it’s not a presentation when you hang up the maps, say nothing, and only allow people to come up to you, one on one, to ask questions). If your materials truly weren’t ready in a way that people could have reviewed these materials in advance and come better prepared with questions, why the rush to schedule this during a home playoff game with downtown packed with people? Why couldn’t you have delayed it a few more days to allow for a more convenient location and scheduling?
I’m going to tell you what attendees told me: they felt this was an attempt to prevent any more effective scrutiny of this project. They feel as if with the folks at the Federal Highway Administration monitoring this project, the last thing ODOT wants is to encounter anymore questioning, criticism or scrutiny that could force you to do changes you don’t want (as happened in 2012).
But here’s the thing: the city council knows this will be their road. They know that you don’t REALLY have final say on this project unless they are scared out of challenging you to make further changes.
They want a boulevard. You want a freeway bypass from Western to Walker Avenues (which you’re already getting between Western Avenue and the new Interstate 40).
I know you don’t like my questions. I know you don’t like being challenged on your assumptions. It’s understandable. You’re not bad people. You are doing your jobs, trying to do what you’ve been educated and trained to do for years. It must be frustrating to have so many people telling you that so much of what you believe in when it comes to designing roads, so much of what you’ve been taught, may no longer be relevant in 2014. Journalism is going through similar transition pains. It hurts. It’s confusing. But the world is changing. And we must change with it.
My readers have wondered, why didn’t I post good clear digital renderings with my blog post last night? We know the answer – you told me you weren’t going to post them online until after the meeting and I didn’t find them online until this morning.
Is this effective communication? Are you really encouraging folks to come with good questions to ask when they couldn’t see these plans in advance? And how many people would have liked to ask questions but were already committed to other plans (like going to the Thunder game)?
I worked very hard to let people know about last night, so I hope you share my happiness in having seen a couple dozen people overcome what they saw as big obstacles to attend this open house anyway.
But does this really count as proper scrutiny of your latest work? Can you sincerely say you made this as easy as possible?
I know, I know. You hate these questions. But I would do this with any agency, any group taking similar actions on such an important decision affecting the future development of downtown.
Anyway, thanks for finally posting these renderings. I’ll post sections of Option C, which I realize you are fully prepared to choose (as shown by your scoring), and I will ask questions about each section that could be considered by residents and city leaders. We all know these plans can still be changed, especially if the city council demands it.

See the two roads going north and south of the boulevard? That’s Klein Avenue, where the boulevard currently ends. I see some influence of planners here in that Klein Avenue is no longer designed as a highway off ramp, but rather  in a manner that will allow development to take place in the empty land abutting each corner of the junction. But it’s not a full intersection. Why? ODOT wants the boulevard to actually continue to act as a highway bypass west of Walker Avenue. When this boulevard was first introduced as a “compromise” way back in 1998 (I crashed the ODOT meeting with Neal McCaleb, a moment some at ODOT still don’t remember fondly), it was presented as an alternative access to downtown. It was not, at that time, discussed as recreation of the old I-40. Yes, yes, I realize that the plans developed back then showed just that. But when residents and even city leaders heard the word “boulevard,” they assumed their common understanding of such roads would not include a freeway bypass. They were wrong to make such assumptions. They didn’t pay careful attention. I didn’t pay careful attention.

Last night you were quizzed by a city leader on your definition of “at grade.” If that caught you by surprise, well, now you know why. After much questioning, we learned this: the boulevard still acts as a freeway bypass until it hits Reno Avenue as shown above. But at that point, it becomes a truly “at grade” road (and not on raised berms, which you also describe as “at grade”), and you promised it will have sidewalks.

Why not bike paths? If your intention is to truly not let this be a high-speed corridor, how could inclusion of bike paths east of Reno be a big deal to add to the design? The right-of-way is certainly big enough. And I still question why there can’t be a full intersection at Shartel Avenue. Surely at that point there will be a lot of motorists getting off the boulevard onto Reno Avenue to take it to the arena, Myriad Gardens, the new convention center and the central business district. I struggle to see how this is a big traffic nightmare that you think it will be – especially if there is a good setting on the traffic lights.

I know, I know, you think this boulevard is going to be the equivalent someday of Broadway Extension in terms of traffic. Again, this thinking is from how you’ve trained and educated. I know, I know, I’m not the engineer. But that doesn’t mean my questions aren’t valid. I am a journalist. So it’s my job to think up really good questions and challenge assumptions. Go figure.

OK, now this is a fun section. Again, it’s at true “at grade,” with sidewalks. It’s an uninterrupted four-city block stretch of road that has a curve that almost invites me to press my foot on the gas pedal. I invite any police officer in Oklahoma City to look at this and tell me this won’t be a great source of ticket revenue for the police department. It also creates the sort of potentially unusable green patches that are so common with suburban and rural highways (and are causing development and planning folks so much frustration along I-235 just east of downtown). You’ve designed a four block freeway here. You know it. I know it. God knows it.

I will be the first to admit that Lee Avenue is not a major corridor. But it is a direct connection to Film Row, and if it were turned into an intersection, it could go far in spurring development in the blighted land to the south of the boulevard. With a well-timed traffic light, how could turning this into an intersection be that big of a deal? And how can the city be expected to deal with this generous expanse of left over green space?

And now we get to the final segment of the boulevard before it goes into Bricktown: the section you’ve always allowed to exist as a true boulevard. And as I look at all this, I’m even more bewildered: as I laid out earlier, once the boulevard hits Reno Avenue, it seems to me the main traffic generation along the boulevard will be those traveling to the arena, the new Core to Shore Park, the convention center and maybe Bricktown. And if this is such a concern for you, traffic wise, on the boulevard between Reno Avenue and Walker Avenue, why are you not fighting for the same reason allowing a full access road with intersections and bike lanes and curbside parking between Walker Avenue and E.K. Gaylord?

I just don’t get it.

But all the things I’ve asked about today – you know, and I know, you really DON’T have final say on. The city will own this road once it is done, and at that time, they can make any of these changes. Yesterday at the Mayor’s Development Roundtable, a loud cheer went up from a crowd of about 500 of the city’s most prominent civic leaders, business owners, executives, planners downtown residents and workers when a speaker suggesting the city guard against the very sort of design being attempted with this boulevard. I have yet to hear from anyone outside of ODOT of the city’s engineering department fiercely defending these designs and this process. I’m hearing from many people to the contrary. And the city council members I’ve spoken to don’t seem very pleased either. So, I ask again the same question I’ve asked before: Are you really going to spend money building a road that isn’t what the city wants when it will belong to the city?

As a final bit of mischief, I’m going to write the final line several times over to ensure it gets caught up in Google alerts:

Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration

 

 

by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's Metropolitan...
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