WHEN Republicans took over the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2005, then-state Rep. Mark Liotta, R-Tulsa, was named chairman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing transportation. That Oklahoma roads were subpar was beyond dispute. The $200 million provided for road funding going into 2005 was unchanged since 1985 — a 45 percent reduction after inflation.
This came even as traffic had steadily increased. From 1985 to 2010, vehicle miles traveled on Oklahoma highways surged by more than 54 percent from about 43 million to 67 million miles per day.
Liotta spearheaded the effort to direct more money to roads and, in that most unlikely of political outcomes, he actually succeeded even in a time of divided government. Funding increases provided since 2005 have now pumped an additional $1 billion into Oklahoma's transportation infrastructure. Where roughly 1,200 of 6,800 state-road bridges were once structurally deficient, today just 706 fit that description, and the repair process for the remainder is expected to start within eight years.
That's no small accomplishment, but challenges remain. Even with funding improvements, the Department of Transportation accounted for just 3 percent of the state budget in fiscal year 2013 — less than what was spent on mental health, a fraction of the Medicaid budget and nowhere near the amount going to education. Oklahoma's roads are improved, but our transportation system still lags surrounding states. And the American Trucking Association projects an approximately 50 percent increase in truck freight movements over the next decade.
At the same time, dedicated funding sources are on the decline. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy notes Oklahoma's fuel tax hasn't been increased in 24 years and inflation has effectively slashed those revenues. Had the fuel tax kept pace with inflation, the institute estimates Oklahoma would have an additional $300 million annually for roads.