The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is getting national recognition for being among the best in the nation at getting stimulus money out on the street.
The U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure invited Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley to testify at a hearing on the use of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds designated for transportation.
By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- In a state that's known more for its "worsts" than for its "firsts," being recognized as a national leader in anything can be a source of real pride. Certainly that's the case with the state department of transportation, among the best in the nation at getting stimulus money out on the street.
ODOT gets its share of criticism -- fairly of unfairly -- for overseeing a system of roads and bridges that have been labeled as some of the worst in the country, but, when it's come to doling out federal stimulus money earmarked for transportation, the agency is getting its share of praise.
Stimulus-funded road work is a common sight in Oklahoma these days and has been since late April 2009 when the state became the first in the nation to get multiple Recovery Act projects under construction.
"We started early," said ODOT's Director of Capital Programs, Tim Gatz. "We probably read the tea leaves maybe a little before some of the other states and were able to get a lot of important projects ready."
The U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has sent several letters to Governor Brad Henry formally recognizing Oklahoma for being in the top five in the nation in putting stimulus dollars to work.
Earlier this month, the committee invited Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley to testify at a hearing on the use of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds designated for transportation.
"I want to share the lessons learned from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation's successful experience in implementing the Recovery Act," Ridley testified.
Ridley went on to report that, of the $465 million in ARRA funds Oklahoma received for transportation, $420 million (90 percent) had been obligated as of December 7, while $240 million (52 percent) had actually been paid out to contractors.
U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, a member of the committee and a harsh critic of the Recovery Act, voiced her appreciation for Ridley's good work and impressive results.
"I'm very pleased that Oklahoma has been so aggressive and so on top of getting the stimulus money out the door and creating jobs," Fallin said at the conclusion of Ridley's prepared remarks.
ODOT officials are hesitant to try and publicly quantify just how many jobs their stimulus projects have saved or created. They can say, with certainty, however, that the number of hours reported by contractors on stimulus jobs recently surpassed the one million mark.
"I think that's a big milestone," said Harry Coates, a Republican and leading member of the state senate's Transportation Committee.
Sen. Coates said he believes ODOT is doing a good job with its stimulus allocation, making sure the work has been spread out across the state and spread out among big and small contractors.
"I'm a conservative to a fault, but [if] these dollars are going to be spent, let's spend them in a way that will really improve the state of Oklahoma and make our citizens safer," Coates said.
Perhaps the most high profile of all the stimulus-funded road projects has been the IDL, or the inner-dispersal loop in Tulsa.
"That thing has been a problem for us for many many years," Gatz said.
The $70-plus million project was in the state's 8-year plan, but the stimulus allowed ODOT to move it up and tackle it all at once.
"That's a long-term fix that we absolutely would not have been able to accomplish without the stimulus dollars," Gatz said.
Of course, the ultimate judges of ODOT's stimulus performance – how well the agency has moved ARRA funds into the highway funding stream – will be Oklahoma motorists.
"The jury's still out," said Jack Cook, a convenience story customer about to head back out on the road. "I still see a lot of improvement that needs to be done on the roads. They beat your car up pretty good."
But Ray McKinley, an Air Force staff sergeant just back from a 6-month deployment, said he sees improvement.
"Before I left there were a lot of potholes everywhere, and you could flatten a tire riding over a pothole in Oklahoma, but now they're starting to improve," McKinley said.
ODOT officials said the $420 million that's been obligated so far represents 185 different road projects, which is just a small percentage of the state's overall need. But ODOT officials said the domino effect created by the influx of stimulus money moves all those other projects up a step or two closer to getting funded themselves.
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