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Critics attack Oklahoma City boulevard designs, say elevation will hamper Core to Shore development

Advocates for pedestrian-oriented streets are battling with Oklahoma highway engineers over design of a new downtown boulevard. Critics claim plans to build it elevated between Western and Walker avenues will hamper development in much of the area known as “Core to Shore.”
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: July 16, 2012

City and state highway officials say the roundabout plan is being looked at. But in a July 5 letter from state deputy highway department director Gary Evans to Dennis Clowers, assistant city manager, plans for a roundabout clearly are not being embraced by the state engineers.

The letter notes a roundabout would not fit within the existing right of way vacated by the old highway, would require additional property acquisition, business displacement and utility relocation, and need “extensive planning” that would need to be re-evaluated by the Federal Highway Administration.

“Combined,” Evans wrote, “these issues would add multiple years and tens of millions of dollars of cost to the project and delay the completion of the reconnection of downtown Oklahoma City to the Interstate. The additional cost would not be funded through ODOT.”

Public input at issue

Evans also reiterated an argument repeatedly made by Mayor Mick Cornett, City Manager Jim Couch and Ridley: The public has been advised for years the boulevard would be built and opened by 2014.

Ridley noted that while the new I-40 is less congested and safer than the old highway, the limited access to downtown is causing significant traffic delays, especially at Western Avenue, and the boulevard is a solution that is needed as soon as possible.

Kemper said the public has not been informed well and that meetings should be held to allow for public comment. Indeed, not one city council member professes to know all the details of the boulevard's design, with most saying they were surprised when they learned about the criticized elevated section a few weeks ago.

“I think they want to accelerate the process as fast as possible so they can hand it off to Oklahoma City,” Kemper said.

Couch said a presentation to the city council is scheduled for July 31 but added such updates are difficult as the boulevard is still being designed.

“The problem with public process is at first we don't have enough information to make decisions,” Couch said. “And then you're too far down the line, and the decisions have been made. And that's the dilemma we get into … it's a bit of the paradox of public involvement.”

Couch said that despite perception the design has only involved engineers, discussions have involved city engineers, planners and respected urban walkability consultants, including Jeff Speck.

Plans have changed

As a result of those conversations, the boulevard has been narrowed from six to four lanes, and a study is under way as to whether a proposed elevation after Western can be built up with fill dirt (similar to the overpass at Britton Road along Broadway Extension) instead of on piers.

Other potential changes include allowing space for additional tracks by a planned transit hub at the Santa Fe Train Depot and an option for the city to pursue an Oklahoma Avenue connection to the boulevard instead of a zig-zag-like connection proposed by state engineers as they sought to avoid acquiring right of way east of the U-Haul warehouse in Lower Bricktown.

Engineers, Couch said, also are accommodating requests by planners to allow for an unusually wide sidewalk — 15 feet — along the boulevard as it passes underneath the BNSF Railway viaduct.

Work goes forward

As such discussions and debate continue, the transportation department is moving forward with letting the first construction contract in August for the boulevard through Western Avenue.

State engineers note that work won't affect the outcome of the debate on road elevation.

Once the roadway section opens, plans show it will allow access to the incomplete boulevard via ramps similar to those that were in place for the old highway off Sheridan Avenue. That one section, Ridley said, will go far in alleviating backups at Western Avenue and the new I-40.

Some council members, including White, Meg Salyer, Pat Ryan, David Greenwell and Ed Shadid, note the boulevard will be turned over to the city to own and maintain once it is complete. By that logic, they said, the city should be given a far greater voice in its design before any work commences.

Broker Gregory warned that if current plans are implemented, the blight that started when the highway department built the original Crosstown Expressway in the 1960s will continue.

“Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Gregory said. “So why would we repeat what failed in the past?”