Oklahoma's roads, bridges are still bad but improving, officials say

National Highway Administration data shows that 36 percent of the pavement in Oklahoma is in poor condition and 23 percent of its bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” figures that paint a troubling picture for the Sooner State's roadways.
by Andrew Knittle Modified: July 29, 2013 at 9:35 pm •  Published: July 29, 2013

A recent Federal Highway Administration report shows that Oklahoma's roads and bridges are among the worst in the nation, but state officials say things aren't as gloomy as they seem.

The most recent Federal Highway Administration data shows that 36 percent of the pavement in Oklahoma is in poor condition and 23 percent of its bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” figures that paint a troubling picture for the Sooner State's roadways.

And like so many times in years past, Oklahoma ranked among the worst states in the nation in terms of road quality and had among the highest percentage of deficient bridges.

The data and references to Oklahoma were highlighted on the front page of Monday's edition of USA Today.

But officials with the Oklahoma Transportation Department say a closer look at the state's roadways and bridges — and the funding the agency has been receiving in recent years — reveals a different story.

Terri Angier, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said the information used in the news report isn't necessarily inaccurate, but it is certainly dated.

Angier said information compiled by the Federal Highway Administration is usually at least three years behind real time.

“In the last five to six years, Oklahoma has done a lot to reverse that trend ... but you're not going to see that in these reports,” Angier said of the perception of Oklahoma as having bad roads and bridges.

“It takes a decade or more, we said a few years ago, for us to show huge improvement. We're still in year two or three.”

And if anything has changed in the past five or six years, it's been the funding made available to the Transportation Department.

Since 2003, the department has seen a dramatic increase in funding, both from the federal and state governments.

In 2003, the agency tasked with maintaining thousands of miles of the state's busiest roadways and thousands more bridges received only $565 million, a total that includes both federal and state money.

Ten years later, funding for the Transportation Department has nearly doubled. This year, the agency reports that it received $1.2 billion, nearly half of that coming from the state.

“We were ranked number one, for many years, in lack of funding for infrastructure,” Angier said. “In recent years, the state Legislature ... introduced one bill after the other, every year, to add more funds.

“And while that's a lot of money, we have 40 years of underfunding to overcome ... we're not going to see results in five years.”

Drawing attention

Angier said the May 2002 bridge collapse in Webbers Falls, in eastern Oklahoma, helped draw attention to the state's ailing, neglected roadways and bridges.

A high-profile bridge collapse near Minneapolis, roughly five years later, drew further attention to the issue.

The Webbers Falls bridge collapsed after a barge hit the structure in the early morning hours of May 26, 2002. Fourteen people died, and nearly a dozen were injured.

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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