Plans for a grand boulevard in downtown Oklahoma City will become clearer Tuesday when the city council votes on a small aspect of the project that has stirred a big controversy.
Despite vocal and written protests from a group of concerned citizens — and at least one member of the council — approval is expected of a plan that would send boulevard traffic across a combined Western-Classen corridor via an overpass.
The proposed bridge is smaller than what was originally considered by the council in developing the boulevard, but the plan has met opposition from transit-minded residents who insist any overpass would divide north and south downtown.
“It divides a good portion of Oklahoma City where there will probably not be any development because of this, and there's no access — you can't get from the north side of this to the south side because all the streets are cut off,” said Bob Kemper, who works in transportation engineering and has taken on the role of spokesman for Friends for a Better Boulevard.
While some city officials call the latest plan a compromise between the initial project specifications and desires of the Friends group, Kemper said the Friends remain steadfast that a roundabout at the intersection — or an entirely new boulevard design — would be preferable.
“We're going to speak and voice our concerns, and there will be several of us,” Kemper said of Tuesday's meeting.
“We're going to ask the city to slow down the project until we have a full evaluation.”
Eric Wenger, who heads the Public Works Department, said he thinks most members of the city council are satisfied with public involvement in developing the boulevard.
The plan all along has been to fill the footprint of the old Interstate 40 — reopened last year several blocks south of downtown — with an east-west road that makes downtown more accessible to interstate traffic, Wenger said.
The revised plan — recommended to the city council by an outside consulting group that studied 38 options for the corridor — calls for fewer lanes and a smaller elevated section and incorporates some pedestrian- and development-friendly elements to the area, Wenger said.
“But we are still addressing the traffic needs at the same time, so it's something that both sides I think should be able to see some positives in,” he said.
The boulevard, as currently proposed, will run-east west, ramping off Interstate 40 between Sheridan and Reno avenues to the east, making a soft turn south where Reno intersects with Western Avenue and Classen Boulevard, and then continuing east past the proposed sites of the new convention center and urban park.
It will continue along just south of Bricktown and ramp back up onto Interstate 40 west of downtown.
Most of the boulevard will be at street level, but the consultants determined the most efficient way to navigate the Reno-Classen-Western area would be with an overpass as opposed to an underpass, roundabout or traditional intersection.
The state Transportation Department has set aside $30 million to $35 million in federal funds for the project, which is a final phase of the larger I-40 realignment.
Wenger said both ends of the boulevard would be designated 45 mph zones and the middle section, near the core of downtown, would be set at 25 mph.
A traffic signal also is likely, he said.
Wenger said the proposal up for vote Tuesday is identical to the first of four options unveiled by the consulting firm at a public meeting in December.
“The comments we received were generally in support of or against the entire thing, (but) there weren't any suggestions on how to make the alternate better,” he said.
Councilman Ed Shadid said he expects the proposal to pass on Tuesday but not unanimously.
Shadid, a critic of the current boulevard plans, said developers have allowed for public input but only within the framework developed in the 1990s.
Shadid suggested that instead of laying a snaking boulevard within the footprint of the old I-40, the city look to connect with the street grid already in existence by building up a current east-west downtown artery.