By Rep. Mike Sanders
Last week, I discussed several current and future road and bridge projects in the district. There are a few more future projects I would like to tell you about this week. My intent is to continue to emphasize the importance of transportation funding in our state as it is a frequent target in budget negotiations.
First, numerous projects in the district will add shoulders and increase the safety of our local roads. Shoulders will be added to State Highway 33 east out of Kingfisher to State Highway 74. Shoulders will also be added to State Highway 51 east out of Hennessey. A project was also added last year to do the same, but to the west out of Hennessey on State Highway 51 to State Highway 132. It is not fully funded, but the right-of-way and utilities are in the 2023 plan. These projects are on the eight-year road and bridge plan and in time will be scheduled and completed.
Secondly, the Kingfisher Creek Bridge north of Kingfisher will be replaced and the northbound lanes of US-81 will be reconstructed with shoulders while the southbound lanes will be rehabilitated between Kingfisher and Okarche. Both of these projects are scheduled to start in 2016 and 2017.
Thirdly, I also want to tell you about where we are at the state level. Our state has one of the largest transportation systems in the nation. We are ranked 17th nationally – right between New York and Florida. The state highway system encompasses 12,264 centerline miles and contains more than 6,800 bridges.
Oklahoma’s transportation system was severely underfunded from 1985 to 2005. More than 1,500 of our highway bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. There were 137 structures that could not bear a legally loaded truck.
In 2005, legislators began to reverse this trend and for 20 years now we have been making great progress, even during tough budget years. Of those 1,500 bridges that were structurally deficient, we’ve replaced many, but as we repair old ones, other bridges fall into structurally deficient status or are simply determined to fail to meet increasing traffic needs. There are only about 300 left of those original deficient bridges. With that moving number, it’s always a struggle to make up for the underfunding of the past, but we are getting there. We also have about 4,600 miles of highways that need shoulders to increase safety.
Despite our progress, the point is that we must continue to treat transportation as a core service in the budget. Maintenance and repair for such a vast system as we have in Oklahoma takes a lot of focus to stay on top of. Even a year’s worth of funding decreases can set us back significantly.
Back in the day, politics played a role in where a bridge or road was constructed. That no longer happens at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Unsafe roads and unsafe bridges are marked and dealt with based on needs only. As the chair of the budget subcommittee on transportation, I have heard of a desire to politicize those decisions again. I can assure you that as chair I will vehemently oppose any such effort to reinsert politics in the process. It simply isn’t appropriate when we are talking about the life-saving necessity of repairing our worst roads and bridges first.