Getting a boost in funding will enable the state to accelerate repairing unsafe bridges and improving the highway system to accommodate increasing traffic as Oklahoma shakes off the doldrums of the recession, state transportation officials say.
Gov. Mary Fallin and transportation officials are working to reduce Oklahoma’s structurally deficient bridges from more than 700 to nearly zero by 2019. The plan does not call for any new taxes, tolls or fees, but rather funding increases from the Legislature.
“If that legislation passes, by the end of the decade all of a sudden we’ll be in a manageable position, and bridges will not be the total focal point of our efforts,” state Transportation Director Gary Ridley said. “I can’t tell you what a load that will take off of the neck of transportation officials if we got to a position where our bridge problem was in a manageable state. It allows you to be more proactive in making major improvements to the whole system.”
Having a safe, reliable and modern transportation system is important for Oklahoma’s steadily growing economy and for the safety of citizens, Ridley said.
“We had been underfunded for so many decades, we can’t fix it overnight,” he said.
Commercial trucking will continue to increase in the state when the expanded Panama Canal opens in 2014, and safe roads and bridges are necessary now to accommodate the increased traffic of drilling rigs and trucks hauling valuable crude from the oil patch, he said.
“Movement of freight will be the biggest challenge as we move forward as a state,” Ridley said. “That’s why we need to get our bridges in a condition that we’re comfortable with — both the interstates and others.”
Commercial truck traffic is projected to increase dramatically through 2035, he said.
Truck traffic, unlike rail and boat, affects motorists directly because they have to deal with them on the roadways.
“Truck traffic and commuter traffic don’t set well together,” Ridley said. “You put the truck traffic in the queue with the commuters on the morning drive and the evening just doesn’t work well. Somehow you have to have enough capacity to handle that.”
The 2014 projected opening of the expanded Panama Canal will have the biggest effect on Oklahoma’s southern border, where commercial truck traffic is expected to nearly double on most roads leading into the state. Truck traffic entering Oklahoma is expected to increase on U.S. 69 in Bryan County from 3,117 to 5,105; Interstate 35 in Love County should see inbound truck traffic increase from 3,807 to 6,091. Inbound truck traffic on Interstate 44 in Cotton County is expected to increase from 806 to 1,231.
“When the canal opens up, it’s going to have an impact,” Ridley said. “The container ships that are stacked up right now ... will now come through the Panama Canal and go to the Port of Houston, the Port of New Orleans. ... It will be able to feed the markets of the Midwest from our southern border.”
The opening earlier this year of the new Interstate 40 Crosstown after nearly 20 years of planning is making the new east-west route just south of downtown Oklahoma City safer and more efficient.
Work taking apart a section of the elevated Crosstown is under way.
After the 46-year-old bridge is removed, a new six-lane downtown boulevard will be built where the bridge used to stand. The boulevard should be finished by late 2014.
The six-lane elevated Crosstown was designed to carry up to 76,000 vehicles a day.
By 2005, when work started on the new 10-lane Crosstown, the bridge routinely carried as many as 125,000 vehicles daily.
The new roadway is designed to carry 173,000 vehicles daily on five lanes in each direction.
“Some were wondering why we put so many lanes on it, but I think it’s going to be very apparent some day that that was a good thing,” Ridley said.
The new Crosstown is about five blocks south of the elevated lane roadway.
The four-mile-long roadway runs from near the I-44 junction east to the junction with Interstates 35 and 235.
About $570 million has been spent so far on the $688 million project, which involves realigning the roadway and replacing a bridge with a ground-level and partly underground roadway.
The Crosstown, a major thoroughfare not only for Oklahoma City but for the country, is replacing the longest structurally deficient bridge in the state, which has undergone repeated emergency repairs over the years. A crack was discovered in 1989 in one of the pier beams. Planning work started in 1996 to develop a new roadway.
“It was a constant concern because of the amount of traffic that was on it and the deteriorating condition of the bridge that we were seeing,” Ridley said. “We were glad to get them off.”
Steel beams that pass inspection will be salvaged and used in the building of as many as 300 county bridges.
Measures are progressing through the Legislature that are intended to reduce the backlog of bridges needing repair or replacement in the state. (At the time of writing, House Bills 2248 and 2249 were working through the legislative process. The Senate was expected to take them up last week.)
House Bill 2248 would increase road funding in the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1.
Current law calls for an annual increase of $37.5 million in road funding. HB 2248 would increase the amount to $56.7 million, with the $19.2 million going to the Rebuilding Oklahoma Access and Driver Safety Fund.
The bill authorizes that the fund continue receiving an additional $56.7 million each year until the total increase equals $550 million.
Until about 2006, the Transportation Department had to rely on about $200 million annually from gasoline and diesel taxes and about $400 million annually in federal highway funds
HB 2249 would direct 16 percent of vehicle licensing fees and penalties to the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges Fund.
It also would increase that amount to 20 percent by the next fiscal year.
The program is currently funded with 15 percent of the motor vehicle taxes and fees.
HB 2249 would increase the estimated annual funding for the program from about $80 million to more than $105 million.
Ridley said if the legislation passes, work can start on replacing or repairing 167 structurally deficient bridges.
Meanwhile, work is under way to improve traffic flow on the state’s two urban turnpikes. Seven-mile sections of both the Kilpatrick and Creek turnpikes are being widened.
Lanes inside the Creek Turnpike from U.S. 75 to Memorial Drive in Tulsa will be added, and inside lanes will be added along the Kilpatrick Turnpike from Eastern Avenue to MacArthur Boulevard in Oklahoma City.
Traffic counts on both toll roads have been significantly higher than original projections.
Tolls, which last were increased three years ago, will not be increased to pay for the widening projects; the Turnpike Authority issued revenue bonds to pay for the projects.
The stretch designated for widening on the Kilpatrick handles about 54,000 vehicles a day, while the area planned for expansion on the Creek handles about 53,000 vehicles a day. Each turnpike was designed to safely accommodate 65,000 vehicles a day.
“We can’t have the turnpikes get to such a congestive point where people are paying to use them and they’re sitting in traffic,” Ridley said. “People will avoid them rather than gravitate to them. We need to stay ahead of the game on congestion on those urban turnpikes.”