WASHINGTON — Though a highway bill passed by Congress on Friday won't mean more federal dollars for Oklahoma in the next two years, the state's transportation secretary said changes included in the legislation would yield financial benefits.
“I can't tell you how excited we are about the opportunities Congress is going to provide the states,” Gary Ridley said in an interview. “I think all states will benefit from what they're doing.”
House and Senate negotiators, including Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. James Lankford, concluded work on the bill this week. House Republicans agreed to drop some unrelated provisions such as a requirement that the Keystone XL pipeline be approved, while Democrats agreed to House provisions that will streamline environmental reviews for road and bridge projects.
The bill will eliminate two-thirds of the programs that were part of the last highway bill, approved in 2005, and give states more flexibility in using money that had been required for alternative transportation modes, such as bike paths. Supporters said the environmental review changes could cut the average time of a project in half.
“I think you could say we'll see the environmental changes speed up a lot of our projects,” Ridley said.
In the case of a bridge that needs to be replaced, he said, the changes in the bill could avoid lengthy review if the new bridge will be on the same “footprint.”
Those kinds of changes, Ridley said, will be “as good as money.”
The highway bill, which will be in effect through most of 2014, will keep Oklahoma at its current funding level of about $612 million a year.
Ridley said that money has about the same buying power as it did just before the recession in 2007. Some costs dropped in the ensuing years but have been steadily rising, he said.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, said the bill includes provisions to allow farmers and ranchers to take their products across state lines without meeting certain commercial vehicle regulations, as long as they are no farther than 150 air miles from their farms.