July 03--FOR a time during the 2014 session, legislators toyed with the idea of peeling money away from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation's long-range road and bridge repair fund and giving it to common education. A new report attests to the success of the state's only-too-recent commitment to roads and bridges.
The report by TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, outlines some of the gains made since 2005 when the Legislature ended two decades of neglect by approving a new funding formula for road and bridge repair.
"By making this effort, Oklahoma has been able to reverse the deterioration of major roads, highways and bridges and has begun to improve traffic safety in the state by modernizing urban and rural roads and highways," the report said. "These efforts have resulted in a large reduction in the number of state-maintained deficient bridges, the rehabilitation and reconstruction of thousands of miles of roadways, and the completion of safety improvements that are saving numerous lives each year."
Until 2005, ODOT's appropriation from the Legislature for the previous 20 years had remained flat, without even an occasional adjustment for inflation. As a result, the state found itself at or near the top of states with the most structurally deficient bridges, and earned a reputation as a place where wheel and tire alignments go to die due to the condition of its highways.
New ODOT funding was included in 2005 legislation. The following year came another bill, to incrementally boost funding from about $200 million per year to nearly $570 million annually. More recently have come bills increasing the amount given to ODOT each year for bridge repair, and the amount given to counties for roads and bridges.
TRIP points out that in 2013, the number of structurally deficient state-maintained bridges stood at 468, compared with 1,168 in 2004. From 2006 through 2013, ODOT repaired or replaced 823 bridges. The state's emphasis in this area has helped reduce its overall share of structurally deficient bridges from 27 percent in 2006 to 18 percent last year.
Oklahoma also was able to repair or replace 301 miles of its interstate highways from 2006-2013, and resurface, rebuild or repair more than 3,000 miles of non-interstate state roads and highways, TRIP says.
However the state still has roughly 900 bridges that need to be repaired or replaced -- something it hopes to tackle by early in the next decade. It also has about 4,600 miles of state-maintained roads that lack paved shoulders, which can be unsafe and limits capacity on those roads. TRIP says 31 percent of miles of state-maintained highways are rated as critical or inadequate for safety.
So there is a legitimate need to continue with the current funding plan, in which ODOT receives $59.7 million each year for bridges. The bill bandied about this past session would have taken half of that sum and given it to common ed over a period of years. That in turn would have delayed ODOT getting to the finish line with its to-do list.
That list only continues to grow, as the number of travelers increases each year and contributes to ongoing wear and tear. Vehicle miles traveled in Oklahoma increased by 45 percent from 1990 to 2012, TRIP says, and by 2030 is expected to increase another 25 percent.
In addition, the amount of federal highway money coming back to Oklahoma is sure to decline in the years ahead as the Highway Trust Fund shrinks.
Given these factors, TRIP says, and we agree, "it will be critical that Oklahomans remain steadfast in their support for adequate funding to provide a safe, well-maintained and efficient transportation system in the Sooner State."
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