Oklahoma City Council members are seeking to hire an independent traffic engineer to examine possible options for building a new downtown boulevard at grade instead of it being elevated as proposed by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
State highway engineers listened but said nothing as council members questioned City Manager Jim Couch and Public Works Director Eric Wenger about the state's plans to build an elevated boulevard in the same path as the recently removed elevated Interstate 40 between Western and Walker Avenues.
“This isn't a project that began yesterday,” Wenger told the council. “It began back in 1995 when there was a project study approved. … Downtown has undergone a lot of change. We had the original MAPS completed, we have Project 180, we have Maps 3.”
Wenger acknowledged the conflict involved in designing a road that doubles as a freeway and a pedestrian-friendly boulevard that will spur new development in blighted areas south of downtown.
“When we talk about the boulevard, it's more than a new bypass for I-40,” he said. “It's a new entrance for downtown.”
Mayor Mick Cornett was among those asking if the elevated sections at the west and east boulevard connections to the new I-40 can be shortened. Cornett said he foresees a time when both areas will develop and need more at-grade access.
“The sooner we can get it to grade for a potential intersection, the better off for future generations it will be,” Cornett said.
No man's land
Planning Director Russell Claus urged that the area surrounding the historic Farmers Market at 311 S Klein not be cut off from the boulevard.
“There is too much no man's land between Farmers Market and downtown,” Claus said. “It's important that once we do develop the west side of downtown that the connection can be made. I do have a concern about a concrete wall as a barrier.”
Burt McAnally, owner of Farmers Market, echoed Claus' comments, adding he has worked to revive the landmark without any assistance from the city.
“Anytime you have elevated highways or boulevards, you end up with blight,” McAnally said. “Drive up and down the old path of the highway and tell me what you see.”
One solution proposed by the advocacy group Friends for a Better Boulevard — a roundabout at Western Avenue — attracted little support by the council other than Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid.
Claus told the council he doubted one roundabout would work, but suggested a pair of roundabouts or other options might allow for the boulevard to remain at grade.
Wenger, meanwhile, acknowledged the boulevard could be built at grade by maintaining a current drop in the roadway path as it approaches Douglas Avenue.
As the council agreed to instruct Couch to hire a traffic engineer to report possible at-grade alternatives for the boulevard, they also cautioned property owners and protesters that a compromise may be the likely outcome.
“It's a true conflict,” said Meg Salyer, whose Ward 6 includes the boulevard. “We have two competing issues. We do need to move traffic, yet we have very legitimate urban planning policies and fundament issues to address to keep up with future development.”