Governor Keating should force his road-building czar to give Tulsans the straight story about road construction delays in their city, instead of offering misleading excuses, according to a state lawmaker who has questioned the Keating administration's commitment to highway improvements in the Oklahoma's second largest metro area.
Senator Lewis Long said the excuses recited by Secretary of Transportation Neal McCaleb at a Tulsa news conference last week didn't fool anyone.
"It may surprise Mr. McCaleb, but the people of Tulsa didn't just fall off the turnip truck. We know when we're getting a snow job and the one Mr. McCaleb is throwing out is a real blizzard. I think it's time Governor Keating took control of his administration and gave Tulsa the straight story, not half-baked excuses that insult their intelligence," said Senator Long.
Currently, two-thirds of the state's five-year road construction program is on hold with delays affecting approximately one-billion dollars worth of projects. The transportation district that includes Tulsa has seen 107 projects delayed or scrapped completely - the most of any region in the state.
When Senator Long publicly questioned the delays last week, McCaleb traveled to Tulsa and staged a news conference in an attempt to justify the many stalled projects. His performance, according to the Glenpool legislator, was less than convincing.
McCaleb Excuse #1: Declining gas tax revenue has cost ODOT $28 million in the past two years, causing road projects to be delayed in Tulsa;
Reality: Even though state funding has decreased slightly, ODOT is still sitting on its largest budget in history, thanks in part to increases in federal dollars. Since FY '95, ODOT's budget of state and federal funds has grown from $379 million to $574 million.
"I don't buy Mr. McCaleb's claim that he's barely scraping by since he's sitting on the largest road construction budget in state history, but even if he is short $28 million, why are one-billion dollars in highway projects on hold? And why are Tulsa projects always delayed when ODOT says it's
money is running short?" asked Senator Long.
"Tulsa always seems to get the short end of the stick under the Keating administration. They would rather blacktop the prairie of western Oklahoma than deal with the traffic gridlock we're experiencing in Tulsa," he noted, referring to a $31 million project on a lightly traveled two-lane road in Greer County that McCaleb defended in his Tulsa press conference.
McCaleb Excuse #2: "The quickest solution" for vital Tulsa projects such as Highway 169 is for the Legislature to approve Phase II of the capital improvements program bond issue (CIP).
Reality: By law, five-year plan projects such as Highway 169 cannot receive CIP funding. Furthermore, Secretary McCaleb has instructed legislators that the $300 million in the CIP Phase II must be used to finish Phase I projects. Hence, no new projects will be funded under Phase
II. Tulsa County CIP Phase I projects would have to be canceled to free up any money for Highway 169.
"Telling the people of Tulsa that Highway 169 will get finished if the Legislature passes the second phase of the bond issue is hogwash and Mr. McCaleb knows it. If you count all the promises he's made to different people, he's probably spent that $300 million in bond money at least a dozen times. It's one of the oldest con jobs in the book," said Senator Long.
McCaleb Excuse #3: ODOT has not received enough state funds to qualify for the maximum amount of matching federal highway dollars.
Reality: ODOT has received more than enough state support to qualify for the maximum amount of federal matching money. It confirmed that again in recent testimony before a Senate committee.
The Glenpool legislator had hoped for a more forthcoming explanation from the transportation czar, but in light of the flimsy excuses that have been supplied instead, he believes its time for Governor Keating to intervene.
"Until he takes control of this situation, I think all the people of Tulsa can assume is that Governor Keating supports Mr. McCaleb's strategy of stringing Tulsa along and feeding us a bunch of hooey. If Governor Keating wanted it to happen, the transportation department would start laying
concrete on the last section of Highway 169 tomorrow," said Senator Long.
"I think the Governor should get involved instead of sitting on the sidelines."
Highway Program Facts:
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation programs construction projects based on a five-year plan. It is required by law to complete programmed projects as long as adequate funding is available. By law, five-year plan projects cannot receive CIP bond issue funds;
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation currently has its largest budget in state history. Since FY '95, its total of state and federal funds has grown from $379 million to $574 million. This does NOT include additional CIP funds;
Sixty percent of the five-year road program or almost $1 billion worth of projects have been delayed and another 6 percent have been canceled all together. Only one-third of state road construction are currently classified as "on schedule;"
Transportation District 8, the division that includes Tulsa County, has had 107 projects delayed or canceled - the most of any of the state's eight transportation districts. For example, the final phase of the widening of US-169 in Tulsa was first slated to begin in 2001, only to be pushed back to 2003 and then to 2005. Now transportation officials indicate they might move it forward again;
While District 8 projects have been delayed, start-up dates have been accelerated for many projects on lightly traveled roads in western Oklahoma;
According to transportation officials, the $300 million in CIP Phase II money is needed to finish projects started in Phase I. Hence, no new projects will be added to Phase II.