The Norman Transcript

September 23, 2012

Let’s look at real reasons for road damage

The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Editor, The Transcript:

This editorial, (Sept. 12, “State’s bridge work still on schedule”) stands as an apparently unintended tribute to the astounding disappearance of the professional curiosity of the Oklahoma Press.

The last Oklahoma Department of Transportation director to speak clearly about the real reasons for the ongoing decline of our state’s roads and bridges served under Gov. David Walters.

Since then, a wall of complicit silence has fallen around ODOT’s administrative offices at 200 NE 21st — as Neal McCaleb disciple Gary Ridley, “the P.E. without a dee-gree,” (serving simultaneously as secretary of transportation and director of ODOT and turnpikes) dominates both the legislature — and, apparently, the Press — with his highway lobby-inspired yap.

The crush of heavy trucks massively underpaying their cost responsibility on the roads of this state and the nation is the strangely unremarked “600-pound gorilla in the hobnail boots” sitting in the corner. Until the endless corporate welfare hose is yanked out of trucking’s jaws, public roads and public safety — as well as the national economy — will continue to suffer.

When challenged to speak up about this, Ridley and his lieutenants mutter that “it’s not their job to make policy.” Unless, of course — that “policy” involves “shoveling more money into the problem.” That’s a different story. Turns out that, in the long run, all that “new money” state legislators tell their constituents that they’re putting into roads is just making the problem bigger — while other needed state services go begging.

What’s required is quite simple: Real, basic, reform. State and national governments should immediately commission comprehensive Highway Cost Allocation Studies — based on the established “Equity Ratio” model (instead of the trucking lobby’s skewed “sufficiency ratio” model), establishing conclusively what each class of vehicle using the public’s roads ought to be paying for their use. (Oklahoma government has never in its history completed such a study.)

Sweeping, fact-based reform of user-cost retrieval should then be implemented — ensuring that the chief, overwhelming damagers of public roads accurately repay, not just for the damage they inflict, but for the costs of a new, state and nationwide blanket of reliable, high-tech enforcement including constant scrutiny of equipment, operational safety and security.

Charging the trucks what they ought to be paying for the use of public roads is the only way to protect public infrastructure, both by limiting the growth of truck traffic in the first place and by guaranteeing fair and equitable user-cost accountability. It’s also the only way to rebalance the competitive equation in the nation’s surface transportation industry — long skewed by decades of hand-over-fist subsidy of trucking and public roads to the detriment of safer, more energy-efficient competitors like railroads. ...

But you haven’t heard any of this from Ridley. His job — as he clearly sees it — is to shovel as much money to his pals in the contracting industry as possible. (This, perhaps, explains how the cost of the entirely unnecessary, four-mile “I-40 Crosstown relocation” in downtown Oklahoma City mysteriously rose from the “$236 million” promised in ODOT’s “comparative route study” to the likely $1 billion-plus reality. Oh — and, of course, that “little road project” just happened to require the equally needless destruction of the last historic rail passenger center in the West with all of its original train handling space intact — and of a long-standing direct rail route from downtown Oklahoma City to the north portal of Will Rogers World Airport. Apparently, however, the state Press “smells no scandal ...”).

And “The ODOT triumph at Webbers Falls?”

Turns out that the only reason such a strategic bridge over a navigable river could be destroyed by an accidental barge strike was that ODOT “sorta forgot” to protect the outer, upstream piers with simple and relatively cheap barge-strike bumpers — for 35 years. After the disaster, the agency got busy protecting other Arkansas River bridges, but it didn’t hold any press conferences about it.

Justice Robert H. Jackson observed, “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error. It is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

Plainly, without an energetic and intrepidly inquisitive press, the critical task of the engaged citizen in this Republic is made much, much more difficult.



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