Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Having safe, well-maintained roads and bridges is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy economy. Oklahoma is at the intersection of three major interstate highways, and we rely on a modern, functional and uncongested infrastructure system to transport an enormous quantity of goods across our borders every day. Businesses choose to locate and expand where employees can come and go easily and where they can get their goods to market. Tourists visit (and spend money at) convenient locations that are easily accessible. For commuters, well-maintained roads are a quality-of-life-issue as well as an everyday necessity.
For all those reasons, when I first took office over five years ago I asked Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley to put in place an aggressive plan to improve and modernize our transportation infrastructure.
That plan began with a commitment to dramatically increasing resources for the Department of Transportation (ODOT), which our Legislature delivered. Since 2011, Oklahoma has invested more than $1.6 billion to repair our crumbling state highway bridges. That investment has paid off; the number of structurally deficient highway bridges has been reduced from 706 bridges at the beginning of 2011 to an estimated 372 at the end of 2014.
ODOT’s current eight-year plan is the most aggressive transportation improvement plan in state history. The plan includes almost 2,000 projects, including hundreds of bridge repairs, 657 miles of work on two-lane highways and 552 miles of repair and modernization on high-volume highways and interstates.
Our eight-year plan is fully funded and the work is on track. Some have pointed to minor cuts to this year’s ODOT budget and the county road and bridge fund (“CIRB”), necessary because of a downturn in the energy sector and a significant budget shortfall, as a signal the state is backing off its commitment to statewide road and bridge improvements. Nothing could be further from the truth. While many agencies took small cuts this year, the fact of the matter is that state transportation funding in Oklahoma has tripled since 2005. Additionally, legislation passed in 2012 locks the state into large investments in road and bridge projects.
It is true this summer’s bad weather, especially flooding, has added additional challenges to achieving our infrastructure goals. Many roads on both the state and county level were washed out or severely damaged. However, both ODOT and its partners at the Department of Emergency Management worked quickly to apply for and secure federal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Currently, 59 counties have been approved for federal and state grants that will cover over 90 percent of the costs of any infrastructure damage.
Work in flood-damaged areas is ongoing, and so far almost $28 million in emergency contracts on the state and county systems have already been identified and are being expedited. In some counties, transportation infrastructure will actually improve because of flood repairs and an influx of additional federal resources.
Ultimately, the biggest hurdle to continuing road and bridge improvements is the passage of a federal transportation and highway funding bill.
Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has practically done the impossible, guiding a multi-year transportation bill through that U.S. Senate that makes significant and responsible investments in U.S. transportation. He should be applauded for his efforts.
It is now the House of Representatives’ responsibility to make quick progress on this issue and ensure the great work being done on the state level can continue with the appropriate federal support.