The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is in the business of building roads and bridges. By nature, these engineers seek to expedite traffic so that roads can handle a large volume of motorists driving at high speeds.
This is how it has been since the advent of the Interstate Highway System in 1956. When the state's highway engineers sought in the mid-1990s to rebuild Interstate 40 south of downtown, they approached the project with the same concerns and forcefully pushed for relocating it a few blocks south of the central business district along an old rail line.
Times, however, were changing. City leaders, including Mayors Ron Norick and Kirk Humphreys, fought against the new alignment, arguing roads are about more than moving traffic — they can help, and hurt, development of the inner city.
The city lost that fight. As part of the plan, the state Transportation Department included a boulevard that would replace the old highway alignment and maintain access to downtown.
Now, as state highway engineers are about to let out construction bids for the road, they're encountering a buzz-saw of criticism that the road will kill development south of the road by Classen Boulevard and will recreate the old highway barriers that blighted the area a half-century ago.
The highway engineers and city engineers, including City Manager Jim Couch, don't indicate in interviews that they understand why people are opposing plans to rebuild five blocks of the boulevard as an elevated roadway. State highway engineers, in particular, note they're only proceeding with plans promised to the public in 1998.
But let's go back to 1998. Lower Bricktown did not exist. Devon Energy Center did not exist. The Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark and the Bricktown Canal did not exist. There was no Chesapeake Energy Arena, no plans for a new convention center, no plans for a “Core to Shore park,” and what we now know as Film Row was then the city's skid row.
Even when the designs for the new highway and boulevard were unveiled, Humphreys and the city council fought it for months afterward.
Downtown changed. The public's buy-in on moving traffic being the top consideration in any road design gave way to debates over balancing vehicular traffic with pedestrian access. The stubborn insistence on one-way streets downtown gave way as the city council insisted the streets be converted to two-way traffic.
Indeed, the city is in the midst of a dramatic transformation of downtown streets dubbed Project 180 that will, in time, eliminate most of downtown's one-way streets and even add dedicated bicycle lanes.
But city engineers ask how far is too far? They point to traffic congestion at the new Interstate 40 and Western Avenue and suggest it's time to re-emphasize accommodating vehicular traffic. To not do so, they ask, is the city not setting itself up for access issues that could hurt continued downtown development?
Advocates of an at-grade boulevard argue Project 180 and the new I-40 are not done, and such judgments are premature. They're pleading with the city council to stand its ground in this battle, to insist highway engineers abandon their elevated roadway design and create a road that fits the “new” mindset where pedestrians are given equal consideration with motorists.
This debate, brewing the past several weeks, will hit the public stage at today's Oklahoma City Council meeting, in which Couch, city engineers and state highway engineers will pitch their case for an elevated roadway to a skeptical council and advocates for an at-grade boulevard. Don't be surprised if representatives from the Federal Highway Administration, potentially the ultimate judge and jury in the debate, are quietly listening from the back rows.