By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKARCHE, OK -- The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is spending most of its $465 million in stimulus funds on roads and bridges, but not all of it. Roughly five percent is going toward what is known among transportation types as "enhancements."
Enhancements cover a range of features that enhance the experience of the traveling public. This could include walking trails, street lights, streetscapes, sidewalks -- almost anything but the road itself. Many towns, especially those in rural Oklahoma, can't pay for these improvements on their own, which is where ODOT's enhancement program comes into play.
In the town of Okarche, on the border of Kingfisher and Canadian Counties, they would love for ODOT to rebuild the main road through town, State Highway 81. But, the truth be told, Okarche's sidewalks are in far worse shape than the highway, and, under the law, federal dollars can't be used to make major improvements to a roadway unless any adjacent sidewalks meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
State transportation officials say this sometimes puts them in an awkward position.
"It's frustrating when we go into town and we tell them that we'd like to make improvements to the roadway, but we first need them to improve their sidewalks and make them ADA compliant," said Gary Evans, ODOT Director of Operations.
Okarche's mayor, Richard Raupe, said there's just no way they could afford to contract the work needed to bring the sidewalks up to code. "Small towns have an awful hard time coming up with money to do things. We don't have a very big tax base."
Fortunately, for Raupe and dozens of other mayors of small towns in Oklahoma, stimulus money has been designated just for this sort of work. Traditionally, ODOT spends $12 million on 25 to 30 enhancement projects every other year. Under the Recovery Act, they've dedicated $26 million, which they believe will fund more than 50 projects in just one year. The only catch is that ODOT is restricting the eligible "enhancements" to sidewalks only.
There are potentially hundreds of towns in Oklahoma that could use these dollars, but ODOT did not take applications. Instead, ODOT engineers went out into the field, looking for small towns where sidewalks were not ADA-compliant, where the town could not afford the upgrade itself, and where there would be few, if any, potential complications.
"We did look for projects," Evans said, "that could be delivered quickly. Obviously that was a primary goal of the stimulus package."
Okarche's project, estimated at roughly $400,000, should get to construction early next year, and town leaders say it will be tax dollars well spent.
"Most of these sidewalks were put in forty years ago, before anybody knew about ADA. So this is gonna be a big help."