The News On 6 Investigates Oklahoma Roads

Tuesday, April 22nd 2008, 3:33 pm
By: News On 6

Editor's note: Since this story, the Oklahoma Legislature, in May 2008, approved a bond package that increased the Oklahoma Department of Transportation's annual budge for road and bridge repairs.  See 5/28/2008 Roads On The Way To A Makeover.

It may be more accurate to call Oklahoma the "Pothole State" than the "Sooner State."  Oklahoma's bad bridges and highways have become more than just an inconvenience; they're costing you money and putting your life at risk every time you take a drive. 

A News On 6 Investigation uncovers who is to blame for the sorry state of Oklahoma's roads, and what it will take to fix them. 

News On 6 anchor Terry Hood reports bad roads cost you in many ways.  They wear your car out before its time, ruin your tires and suspension, hurt your gas mileage, and endanger your life. 

According to a national research group called The Road Information Program, or TRIP, every year bad roads cost every Tulsa driver $682 in damage to his car.  It's almost as bad in Oklahoma City, where drivers pay an extra $661 a year.  That's enough to land Tulsa and Oklahoma City in TRIP's top 10 worst cities. 

"I don't need to tell you that it's an embarrassment to us," Gary Ridley, Oklahoma Department of Transportation director said. 

No one knows better than the Oklahoma Department of Transportation just how big the problem is.

"We have a big system and consequently it takes a lot of money to not only keep it maintained, but also to make improvements in areas where you have high growth areas," said Gary Ridley.

"We're paying for good roads, we're just not getting them," said Neal McCaleb, Former Oklahoma Transportation secretary. 

Neal McCaleb ran the Oklahoma Department of Transportation for a decade.  He is now a member of a group called T.R.U.S.T. or Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation.  You've probably seen the group's TV commercials, urging you to tell the state Legislature to change the way it funds Oklahoma Department of Transportation.  Its members come from diverse backgrounds, including some with a financial interest in more road spending. 

McCaleb says the problem started decades ago, when lawmakers started dipping into the millions of dollars collected from car tag fees. 

"In 1940, the state was in a real financial pinch, actually it was almost bankrupt.  As a result, they started skimming the motor vehicle tax, until today only 1% of it goes to the state highway transportation department," said Neal McCaleb. 

Every year, the state of Oklahoma collects about $600 million in license tag fees. Last year, about 42% of that cash went into the state's general revenues, where it was used to fund all kinds of things, including ODOT.  But another 40% went to non-highway uses. About 16% went to counties and towns across the state for their local roads.  That left less than 1% that went directly to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. 

ODOT and TRUST say that formula needs to change, if Oklahoma's ever going to dig out of the hole it's in.  You don't have to go far to find a state that found a way to do so.  Take a drive to Kansas.  Even on a rainy day, it's easy to see how good the roads are in the Sunflower State. But it wasn't always like this. 

"People have to recognize there's a need, and they have to want improvements.  And sometimes things have to get pretty bad," said Terry Heidner with the Kansas Department of Transportation

Twenty years ago, Kansas was where Oklahoma is right now.  The Kansas Legislature, the governor, and even everyday citizens did something about it.  Using a mix of funding sources that even included a sales tax, two long-term programs helped KDOT dramatically improve its highway system.  Nineteen years later, the man who coordinated those programs says Kansas also got lucky. 

"Inflation came in lower than we had built into the program, revenues came in higher than we had estimated, and those two were the biggest things, but also we managed the program very well," said Terry Heidner.

Transportation experts say Kansas' success story offers a good model for Oklahoma.  Both states have mostly rural populations with just a few large cities.   Oklahoma has about 9,000 more lane miles of highway than Kansas.  Oklahoma has about 2,000 more bridges, because it has so many creeks and rivers.  But here's the biggest difference: Oklahoma spends about $8,300 per lane mile a year on its highways and bridges.  The state of Kansas, with its smaller population and budget, spends almost three times that amount, almost $24,000 per lane mile. 

"They spend two to three times what we spend, and have historically spent in Oklahoma, on their roads, and Kansas doesn't have oil," said former state lawmaker Mark Liotta.

Liotta was a state lawmaker in 2005 when he decided to find out why Kansas could fix its highways while Oklahoma could not.  The answer?  Politics.  The state legislature had not increased ODOT's $200 million annual budget since the mid 80s.  And those same state lawmakers, not the experts at ODOT, were deciding which roads to build or fix. 

"If you design your system around politics, it's never gonna make sense. It's always gonna be expensive, and it's never gonna be the system you want," Mark Liotta said. 

So Liotta wrote House Bill 1176.  It's had a bumpy ride since becoming law, but it will eventually more than double ODOT's budget to about $500 million a year. It will allow the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and all 77 counties to eventually fix or replace all their worn-out roads and bridges.  What's more, it will also help keep them from getting this bad again.  That was a lesson learned by the Kansas Department of Transportation. 

"It takes so much money to come back out of that, compared to if you kinda keep, you know, like painting your house every five years it's not too bad a chore.  But if you only paint every 20 years, the prep job on that house and the scraping and all that is enormous," Terry Heidner said.

But House Bill 1176 also does something that impressed the experts in Kansas.  It takes politics out of the process, by allowing ODOT, not lawmakers, to decide which roads and bridges get fixed or replaced. That should help the state resist one of the worst temptations facing any state department of transportation, building new highways, instead of preserving and improving the roads it already has. 

"It's tempting.  It's tempting!  Spend all your money or a big share of it on fun stuff that gets the headlines, that gets the ribbon cuttings, but don't go there," said Heidner. 

ODOT does have one major issue with House Bill 1176.  It would speed up the increase in ODOT's yearly budget, but only if the official estimate of state revenues increases by 3%.

Several bills pending in the Oklahoma Legislature would remove that trigger mechanism.  If that trigger isn't removed in May, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation says it will have to cut $175 million worth of projects out of its long-range plan.

Have a photo or video of Oklahoma pot holes or other roadway problems that you would like to share with The News On 6?  Send it now with YouNews TV!

More information about the state's road conditions can be found by viewing an interactive feature comparing Oklahoma and Kansas roadways.