GARY Ridley's first job with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation was as an equipment operator. More than 40 years later, getting things done is still his priority.
Thanks to Ridley's leadership as director of ODOT, Oklahoma's roads and bridges are improving. Ridley is quick to commend Gov. Brad Henry and members of the Legislature who finally woke up to the agency's needs, but Ridley's direction shouldn't be understated.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, calls him the best transportation director in the country. Ridley's approach is refreshing: â€œWe don't like to be like some forms of government where you throw money at it and you don't get results.â€
Money was a problem for years at ODOT. The agency was appropriated the same amount every fiscal year from 1985 to 2005 â€” beyond ridiculous, in hindsight â€” before change finally came in the form of Republican-led legislation that addressed long-term planning.
Two events helped serve as catalysts â€” the death of a motorist struck by a chunk of concrete that fell through her windshield from a bridge on Interstate 35, and voters' overwhelming rejection of a proposed fuel tax increase to pay for road and bridge repair. These placed transportation squarely in the public eye.
When fully implemented, legislation will provide ODOT with about $400 million more per year for maintenance than it had in the early part of this decade. Since 2006, more than 500 bridge replacement/repair projects have been completed or started. â€œI'd venture to say there are very few states that have touched that many bridges,â€ Ridley says. There are 650 more on ODOT's eight-year construction plan that carries into 2018; there were fewer than 200 in the previous eight-year plan.
The current construction plan also includes improvements to shoulders on 485 miles of two-lane highway, surface improvements to major highways, and the additional installation of life-saving cable barriers in medians.
When federal stimulus money became available last year, Ridley's agency was first in line and secured $465 million for state projects. ODOT operates with about 2,400 employees, roughly 800 fewer than 15 years ago. â€œI would hope to think people are happy with how their money is spent,â€ he says.
Ridley's stewardship in encouraging. When Oklahomans see roads getting fixed and bridges being repaired, as promised, they have reason to believe that perhaps other areas of state government can deliver, too.
Ridley is state transportation secretary as well as ODOT director. The former post is at the pleasure of the governor. Gov.-elect Mary Fallin would be wise to keep him on board, although Ridley won't campaign for it.
â€œWhat's important to me is that the plans we have in place move forward,â€ he says.