By Tim Talley
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — It wasn’t long ago that Oklahoma relied almost exclusively on federal transportation dollars to fund its highway and bridge building program.
State-appropriated tax dollars couldn’t keep up with the maintenance needs of the 12,262 miles of highways and 6,812 bridge spans in the state — a transportation network that was described as among the worst in the nation in 2005 by a national transportation research group.
But changes in funding priorities have prompted the Legislature to approve a series of measures that ramped up transportation funding over the years and more than doubled the amount of state tax dollars that are appropriated to repair, replace and build new highways and bridges in the state.
And for the first time in state history, state revenue appropriated for Oklahoma’s highways and bridges has surpassed federal transportation revenue.
“It’s changed the whole complexion of the state and how we’re been able to provide safety to the traveling public,” said Mike Patterson, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
“We are able to address many of the needs that we have been unable to take care of in the past,” Patterson said.
Figures provided by the agency indicate highway revenue in Oklahoma for the fiscal year that ended June 30 totaled $1,068 billion. More than half the total, $544 million, was state tax dollars and marked the first time that state-appropriated funds exceeded federal transportation dollars, which totaled about $524 million for the year.
And those figures will continue to climb in future years, according to ODOT. The federal estimate for transportation funding in the upcoming year is around $497 million and the state estimate for the year is $605 million, the agency said.
State funding for highways and bridges from fuel taxes and other appropriations is expected to level off at around $775 million a year in 2019 — three times as much state revenue as was dedicated to transportation in 2005.
“We’re now talking about relying more on our state funds,” said Terri Angier, a spokeswoman for the agency. “We’ll start seeing improvement — we already have.”
Increasing financial support for state transportation needs is reflected in an eight-year, $6 billion highway and bridge construction plan that has been adopted by the Oklahoma Transportation Commission.
The plan includes almost 2,000 projects to be completed by 2021, including replacing or rehabilitating 924 bridges and improving 657 miles of two-lane highways and 552 miles of high-volume highways and interstates. The state’s first eight year transportation construction plan in 2003 contained less than $2 billion in improvements and only 220 bridge projects.
The construction plan and a separate initiative to preserve existing roads and bridges will ensure that all structurally deficient bridges in the state will be repaired or replaced by the end of the decade, Patterson has said. The number of structurally deficient bridges has already been reduced from a high of 1,168 in 2004 to 556 last year.
Rankings released in 2005 by The Road Information Program, a nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C., said Oklahoma’s bridges were the worst in the nation and its pavement and overall road safety are below average.
But TRIP’s director of policy and research, Frank Moretti, said the state has shown a strong commitment to improving its transportation infrastructure.
“They’ve certainly started to make some improvement on the condition of their bridges,” Moretti said. “The legislature in the last several years has certainly shown a lot of support for transportation.”
But, Moretti said, there’s still a long way to go. In 2012, TRIP ranked Oklahoma second behind Pennsylvania as the states with the most structurally deficient bridges, including state and county-maintained bridges. The organization said 23 percent of Oklahoma bridges were deficient, 24 percent in Pennsylvania.
A TRIP analysis released earlier this month ranked Oklahoma City 10th and Tulsa 11th among 20 urban regions with populations of more than 500,000 with the greatest share of major roads and highways with pavements that are in poor condition and provide a rough ride.
Patterson has said that pavement issues on state highways is his agency’s next challenge. But officials concede that it will take time to address all of Oklahoma’s transportation issues.
“It’s going to take us at least a decade to show progress and reverse the trend,” Angier said.
Angier said the state’s transportation agency had been underfunded since the 1960s until a deadly bridge collapse more than a decade ago brought new scrutiny to the state’s network of roads and bridges.
A barge tow on the Arkansas River near Webber’s Falls struck a pillar of an Interstate 40 bridge that crossed the navigational channel on May 26, 2002, knocking down a 580-foot section of the bridge. A total of 14 people were killed as their vehicles plunged into the muddy river, and another 11 were injured.
The accident forced transportation officials to create a 60-mile detour in both directions that included 58 bridges that were inadequate to handle the heavy load.
“That really is what was revealing to us,” Angier said. “All of these bridges were in bad shape. That was a major concern for us.”
Transportation officials brought their concerns to lawmakers and their constituents. And Angier said the result will eventually lift Oklahoma’s transportation network from the bottom of the nation’s rankings to the top.
“They have truly come through for us,” Angier said. “We are on a mission. We have just begun.”