INCOMING Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon recently said his “first and foremost goal” is to restrain state agency heads who, in his view, wield too much clout at the Capitol. Surely he wasn't talking about Department of Transportation Director Gary Ridley. Oklahoma would be fortunate to have more like him, not fewer.
Ridley, who announced last week that he is retiring in March after 44 years with the agency, has been a consummate professional. He's the foremost reason Oklahoma's roads and bridges have improved in the past several years instead of deteriorating, as they had done for so long — thanks largely to legislative neglect.
Although not bashful about letting lawmakers know how he felt about issues related to his agency, Ridley didn't politicize his office or use his position to grind axes. His aim was to improve Oklahoma transportation, period. His experience and integrity make him one of the best at his job in the country.
Ridley, 67, rose to the top of ODOT the old-fashioned way. He began his career with the agency as an equipment operator and then held several jobs along the way. He was named agency director in 2001 during the administration of Republican Gov. Frank Keating. Ridley retained the job through the two terms of Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who later named Ridley his transportation secretary.
Republican Mary Fallin kept Ridley in both jobs when she moved into the Governor's Mansion in January 2011. He will relinquish the ODOT title in March but continue as transportation secretary.
As director of ODOT, Ridley pushed for the installation of cable barriers on state highway medians. These have reduced the number of cross-over fatality accidents and done so economically — the cables cost far less to install and maintain than concrete barriers.
In May 2002, not long after he became director, a 600-foot section of the Interstate 40 bridge near Webbers Falls collapsed after the bridge was struck by a barge. Fourteen motorists died. Ridley's oversight helped get the high-traffic bridge rebuilt and reopened 64 days later, 10 days ahead of schedule.
His greatest legacy is the road and bridge repair program now in place for Oklahoma. A decade ago, Oklahoma's bridges consistently ranked among the nation's worst, as ODOT treaded water with the same annual appropriation from the Legislature that it had received for 20 years.
The 2004 death of a motorist who was struck by a piece of falling bridge debris graphically illustrated the sad state of our bridges. A solid road funding bill came out of the Legislature in 2005. After voters that year rejected a plan to increase the gasoline tax to help fund road and bridge improvements, the Legislature in 2006 passed additional road/bridge funding, putting ODOT in a position to really make a dent in the problem.
“I promise you,” Ridley said after passage of the 2006 legislation, “the Transportation Department will work relentlessly to make Oklahoma's highway system the envy of our neighbors.”
He kept that promise. This year, Fallin signed two bills designed to all but eliminate the state's 700 or so remaining structurally deficient bridges in the next seven years. One bill increases the amount of money directed each year to a fund ODOT uses for fixing bad bridges. The other increases the amount of money counties receive each year to spend on their roads and bridges.
Both bills were authored by T.W. Shannon, who no doubt knew that with Ridley minding the shop, the work would get done.