Oklahoma City Public Works Director Eric Wenger answered questions from The Oklahoman and some submitted by readers via Facebook when he came by the newspaper for an interview. Questions and answers have been edited. Here are some of them:
From The Oklahoman
Q: How does Public Works coordinate with the counties on road building?
A: Over the last two years, we had 21 city-county agreements to do joint projects for road construction. There are a lot of outlying areas of Oklahoma City where we are able to partner with several of the counties — Cleveland, Oklahoma and Canadian — where we can do what we call a 50-50 project. If we buy the materials, they'll provide the labor to install it. So it cuts the cost of our projects in half. The labor's typically about 50 percent of the total cost. That allows us to do twice the amount of work we would normally do with half the cost.
Q: Do you find that money for street projects comes with restrictions that can appear to make little sense?
A: We have some city standards that prescribe widths of sidewalks. In residential areas, we'll use a 4-foot-wide sidewalk. On arterial streets, our minimum width is 5 feet unless the sidewalk's right behind the curb, then we require it to be a 6-foot sidewalk. There have been some federally aided projects in Oklahoma City that have required the construction of ramps at the intersections where there's no sidewalk yet. These ramps were required through the federal funding, but we didn't have the funding for the sidewalk or the sidewalk was ready to go in place. Those would come with future projects. Our major street program that's going to provide about $500 million of street resurfacing or new construction is going to add a sidewalk on every one of those listed projects to at least one side of the street. It will account for about 275 miles of new sidewalk over a 10-year period.
Q: That dwarfs the 35 miles or so of MAPS 3 sidewalks — going in at a cost of about $10 million — yet many of these new sidewalks are being constructed in outlying areas with low population densities while inner-city neighborhoods still are not getting sidewalks.
A: One of the challenges we have is to have funds come available like MAPS where it doesn't have location of the street as a requirement for the location of the sidewalk. When the 2007 bond issue was passed there wasn't the opportunity to have just a sidewalks-only bond project. My understanding is it's not eligible for a bond issue to do just sidewalks. You can put sidewalks with parks, you can put sidewalks with streets; you can't just do a sidewalk only. I believe there's legislation being considered that's going to make that a possibility in the future.
Q: Why is it taking so long to fix NW 23 between Portland and Meridian avenues?
— Mark Woodruff
A: NW 23 Street is being constructed in three phases. The first of those phases is underway now. Phasing mitigates some of the traffic concerns by not tearing up too much at once. It is a streetscape project so it will be coming with enhanced sidewalks, enhanced lighting opportunities, landscaping and some other amenities that you wouldn't find on a typical roadway widening or a typical roadway resurfacing. There is a short section from Interstate 44 to Portland that we received a number of complaints on. The city did do some advance maintenance on that section of road until the time that the streetscape project will be there in the next 18 to 24 months.
Q: What happened to the project for the south side called Envision 240?
— Kathy Ward
A: Envision 240 is a concept that came from the South Oklahoma City Chamber to look at and study opportunities on how to remake the Interstate 240 corridor. There was a walkability workshop earlier this summer where Dan Burden, a national walkability expert (walklive.org), visited Oklahoma City. It's not a funded project, so it's still in that concept phase with much to be determined. Projects like Envision 240 wouldn't be a lot different from significant streetscape projects where it would require a bond issue. It would also be one that we would be very closely coordinating with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. There's a lot of work ahead but it is underway.
Q: Why will the city not repair streets in Ski Island?
— Rob Anderson
A: There are a portion of the streets in Ski Island that are private streets. They're maintained by the homeowners' association — most readers might be familiar or more familiar with gated communities, which almost always are private streets. Unfortunately, the city can't maintain them. There's some that are not gated that are private, also. You'll know them in Oklahoma City because they'll have a white sign with green letters instead of a green sign with white letters. So we actually identify our private streets with white signs. That's one way to help our street maintenance crews. There's been a number of streets in Oklahoma City unfortunately that we maybe have maintained in the past without the knowledge of them being private. Having better GIS systems and when we get work requests we find out that they're private, now people are wondering, ‘You took care of my street for 10 years, why aren't you doing it any more?' We just realized it wasn't public and we can't.
Eric Wenger has been Oklahoma City's Public Works director for two years. He leads a department with nearly 400 employees and an annual budget of $79 million. Here's an introduction:
Education: Attended the University of Oklahoma, earning a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering.
Experience: Began work for Oklahoma City as a junior civil engineer in May 1994. He's been with the city ever since, with the exception of a brief stint as a staff engineer with Johnson & Associates.
Certifications: He is a registered professional engineer and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Public Works Association.
Honors: Wenger was Oklahoma City employee of the year in 1995 and listed as a rising star by Forty Under 40 in 2005.
Responsibilities: Besides Public Works, Wenger oversees the city's 2007 General Obligation Bond Issue projects — mostly street projects — and downtown's Project 180 streetscapes initiative.
Fun fact: Wenger is a champion radio-controlled model airplane pilot.