THE Oklahoma Transportation Commission approved an eight-year, $6 billion road and bridge construction plan last week, and no one blinked. On transportation, this state has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.
It was less than a decade ago that Oklahoma's roads and bridges were essentially an afterthought. As a result, motorists traveled on some of the worst highways and bridges in the country. Indeed in the case of bridges, no state had more structurally deficient bridges than Oklahoma.
In 2004, a woman traveling on Interstate 35 near Paoli was killed when she was struck by a piece of debris that fell from a bridge. That served to grab lawmakers by the lapels and shake them to attention.
The following year, the Legislature approved a transportation funding bill pushed by House Republicans — the GOP had gained control of that chamber in the 2004 elections. Their spending bill was no small thing. During the previous 20 years, the amount of state money appropriated to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation had remained unchanged.
Later in 2005, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to increase the gasoline tax to help fund road and bridge improvements. So lawmakers revisited the issue during the 2006 session and approved additional road/bridge funding. That plan incrementally increased funding from about $200 million per year to nearly $570 million annually. ODOT's director at the time, Gary Ridley, promised that his agency would “work relentlessly to make Oklahoma's highway system the envy of our neighbors.”
That has happened. Since 2004, the state has cut in half the number of structurally deficient bridges. The total stood at 556 in 2012, compared with 1,168 eight years earlier. And funding is in place to cut into the total further.
Last year, Gov. Mary Fallin signed two bills that had been authored by Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, who is now speaker of the House. One bill increased to $59.7 million, from $41.7 million, the amount directed each year to a fund ODOT uses for repairing structurally deficient bridges. The other bill increased the amount of money counties get annually to spend on their roads and bridges.
The road/bridge plan approved last week by the Transportation Commission involves projects stretching to 2021. The money will be used to replace or fix more than 900 bridges, as well as improve 552 miles of interstates and high-volume highways. Another 657 miles of two-lane highways will get attention, too.
If all goes as expected, the state won't have any structurally deficient bridges when 2021 rolls around. As for the smoother roads, “We're not going to get out of the pavement problem in one year,” Ridley's successor, Mike Patterson, told the commission. “It'll take a number of years to do that.”
Oklahomans should be heartened that the state has a solid plan in place to address long-term road and bridge concerns, and is following through on that plan. For far too long, this absolutely was not case. Digging out from a maintenance backlog resulting from decades of funding neglect will take time, sure, but eventually Oklahoma will have more highways and bridges it can be proud of.