Road funding reforms improve infrastructure, Benge says

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 19-Oct-2010

Thanks to funding increases approved by lawmakers in recent years, hundreds of dilapidated bridges and countless miles of road have been refurbished in Oklahoma, House Speaker Chris Benge noted today (Tuesday, October 19).

“Although Oklahomans won’t see the full results of this long-term initiative for several years, the progress accomplished improving Oklahoma roads is already substantial,” said Benge, a Tulsa Republican leaving office at year’s end. “I am proud to say we have ended the neglect of state roads and hope this commitment will continue in the future.

“This national economic downturn has made Oklahoma a more attractive place to do business and created an opportunity to attract out-of-state companies. And our road program is a key part of the effort to attract those new jobs to Oklahoma.”

Prior to 2005, road funding in Oklahoma had remained essentially the same for two decades, flat-lining at $200 million per year. Taking inflation into account, road funding had actually declined 45 percent over 20 years.

That funding neglect was felt across the state. Of the more than 6,800 bridges on the state highway system, nearly 1,600 were either too narrow to support today’s traffic or had structural deficiencies, or both. In January of 2006, approximately 137 bridges had restricted load limits. All but six of those bridges have been repaired and the others are now scheduled for improvements.

Since 2005, Benge noted lawmakers fought for and put in place reforms to make road funding a priority. Under laws passed with bipartisan support, road funding is scheduled to gradually increase to $570 million by 2016.

Under the reforms pushed by legislative leaders, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation prioritizes projects based on need. The Legislature does not direct the selection of projects.

“We did not increase funding for ‘political’ road projects. We increased funding to actually replace the most decrepit bridges based on actual need,” said state Rep. Guy Liebmann, an Oklahoma City Republican who serves as chair of the House Appropriations & Budget Subcommittee on General Government and Transportation.

The 60 most-restrictive bridges in Oklahoma have all been refurbished or replaced using excess cash. According to a release sent from legislative staff to CapitolBeatOK, since the passage of funding reforms, 530 Oklahoma bridges have been replaced or repaired and another 640 are now scheduled for improvements on the Department of Transportation’s eight-year plan.

In the past, only 200 bridges were typically included on an eight-year plan.

“We are fixing bridges at a rate that is exponentially greater than anything ever imagined in the past,” said state Rep. T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee. “That fact alone is one of the most significant public safety victories achieved at the Oklahoma Capitol in recent memory.”

In addition to bridge improvements, funding reforms have allowed the repair of many miles of Oklahoma road.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, an evaluation of safety features rated approximately 24 percent of state highway as critical or inadequate. The current eight-year plan calls for shoulder and roadway improvements to 485 miles of two-lane highways without paved shoulders. Over 211 miles of Interstate pavement have been rehabilitated or reconstructed since 2003 and additional improvements are included in the Construction Work Plan.

The Department of Transportation has installed more than 300 miles of cable barriers on Oklahoma interstates and major highways, a direct result of additional state funding. Only six crossover fatalities have occurred to date this year, compared to 41 fatalities from crossover accidents in 2007 prior to placing the barrier systems on highways.

“Thanks to additional funding from the Legislature and Governor Henry starting in 2006, we have been able to make major progress to a system that was becoming unmanageable. Their vision in making roads and bridges a priority will pay dividends for years to come and provide Oklahomans with a transportation system they deserve,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley said.

“This is true leadership on their part in doing what’s best for the state. They have entrusted this system to our hands and we have to make sure we stay the course to accomplish the mutual goals of improving Oklahoma’s roads and bridges.”

“Our roads and bridges did not get in this condition overnight, and unfortunately we won’t be able to fix the problem overnight,” Benge said. “It will take a consistent, steady and continued effort to address this critical need.”