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Priorities set for new state transportation dollars

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Millions of dollars in new transportation funding will be used mostly to repair Oklahoma's crumbling roads and bridges, transportation officials said Monday.

A plan that will eventually pump $170 million more into the state's road and bridge maintenance budget each year without raising taxes was passed by the Legislature before it adjourned on May 27.

The Department of Transportation will receive $17.5 million in new money during the fiscal year that begins July 1 under the plan. Lawmakers appropriated $1.9 million to Amtrak's Heartland Flyer passenger rail service between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas. Without this funding, the line would have been in danger of closing. Another $500,000 was set aside for public transit.

The agency's director of operations, John Fuller, told the Oklahoma Transportation Commission that the remaining $15 million will be divided between road and bridge maintenance.

A total of $10 million will be used for bridge maintenance, although the bridges have not been chosen. It costs an average of $2 million to replace a single bridge, officials said.

The balance, $5 million, will be used to repair roads, including new overlay.

``This is certainly a good first step,'' transportation Director Gary Ridley said. ``It gives us money we can use in the maintenance program that we haven't had in the past.''

Lawmakers appropriated another $69 million to pay debt service on road construction bonds. In recent years, the Transportation Department has been forced to dip into its road maintenance fund to pay debt service on the bonds.

Fuller said the agency is still developing a budget for the additional money, but 75 percent will go toward road and bridge maintenance.

``We will rehabilitate as many bridges as we can and resurface as many roads as we can.'' Ridley said.

Transportation funding will increase over five to 10 years to a sustained level of $170 million a year. The plan will dedicate up to $34 million in new dollars each year when new revenue from economic growth exceeds 3 percent, the average annual growth experienced by the state.

The plan also includes a statutory ``lockbox'' provision that will prevent lawmakers from dedicating the new revenue for anything other than transportation.

Ridley has said the state has $8.4 billion in transportation needs that will take years to resolve. More than 3,000 miles of Oklahoma's 12,266 miles of highway need to be repaired or replaced and about 1,600 of the state's 6,728 bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

In April, part of a 1940s-era bridge over the Salt Fork of the Red River in Jackson County collapsed under the weight of a garbage truck. No one was injured. Last year, a Texas woman was killed by a chunk of bridge that fell on her car along Interstate 35 south of Oklahoma City.

A statewide election is scheduled Sept. 13 on a plan to increase state fuel taxes that will raise an additional $150 million a year for roads and bridges.

State Question 723 would raise Oklahoma's 17-cent per gallon gasoline tax and 14-cent per gallon diesel tax to 22 cents each, the first increase since 1987.
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