OKLAHOMA CITY – The state’s transportation department is nervously watching a bill it said would delay a number of road projects, stopping the progress the agency has made on Oklahoma’s structurally-deficient bridges.
“That could be extremely devastating to our eight-year plan,” said ODOT spokeswoman Terri Angier. “A lot of that would have to be delayed. It’s not that we wouldn’t get to all the projects, but it will certainly slow it down, and it will certainly delay project after project.”
Sen. Ervin Yen (R-Warr Acres) has proposed a bill that would cut the agency’s funding by nearly $60 million this year.
But, the bigger problem, Angier said, is the way the bill would change the funding formula, taking away $60 million year after year, unless the state’s revenues grow by at least 4 percent.
“Of course, this year, we’ll have to take our cuts, and we understand that,” Angier said. “But, the concern is for the future years to come where even when the economy bounces back that the formulas, having been changed, won’t bring in the funds we’ve been counting on to invest in our infrastructure.”
Angier estimates it could take decades to reverse that trend, which is particularly frustrating after years of working to get the state out of the basement, when it comes to rankings on road quality.
In 2004, Angier said there were about 1,200 structurally-deficient bridges.
Today, that number stands at around 350.
The Oklahoma Association of General Contractors took NewsChannel 4 to one of those bridges in Del City to show how dire it thinks the situation is today.
“Right now, I think we’re playing with fire in delaying these state funds,” said executive director Bobby Stem. “There’s nothing else that we think every citizen in the state of Oklahoma uses everyday that we’ve gotta make sure stays safe.”
Both Stem and Angier said they realize the state must make tough decisions as the state faces a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.
The bill’s author said state agencies have to share the pain to close the gap.
“It’s not just the roads fund,” Yen said. “We’re going to have to do this all over the place. Hopefully, this budget crisis we have will not last forever but, if it does, can we afford to give the roads fund $59.7 million each year?”
Yen emphasized his plan is not set in stone and is open to having conversations to revise his bill, as long as it’s a talk about practical solutions.
“I guarantee we’re not just going to have money pop out of nowhere,” he said. “We’re trying not to target any specific entity. We’re trying to do this across the board.”
But, Bobby Stem of the OAGC wants lawmakers to keep in mind the impact roads and bridges have on safety and commerce.
That’s not to mention the Oklahoma companies that would be performing the work to get things fixed.
“When you put a dollar into roads and bridges, tomorrow concrete gets bought, people stay on the job, equipment gets bought, leased and that dollar gets put in the economy immediately,” he said.
He’s suggesting the use of more bonds to ensure the roads continue to improve.
“There’s a way to fix this and balance the budget,” he said. “You make these cuts, and it’s hard to get back on track.”