Road and bridge revenue uncertain as Legislature convenes

Saturday, February 5th 2005, 4:12 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The rectangular white sign that hangs from a bridge along Oklahoma Highway 131 in Coal County means one thing to Coalgate schools transportation supervisor Charles Canada: danger.

The sign posts the two-lane bridge's maximum load at seven tons, a warning that the school district's 15-ton buses cannot safely cross. Instead, a bus takes a 50-mile detour around the bridge each day to pick up and drop off a sixth grader at E.E. Emerson Elementary School who lives on the other side.

``We have to backtrack to pick him up because we can't cross that. And it adds up,'' said Canada. Traveling around the posted bridge costs the school district hundreds of dollars in additional fuel expenses each year.

``But we're a public school and we have to go get him.''

The bridge in southeastern Oklahoma is among more than 1,600 statewide that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation has classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and in need of replacement.

But static transportation revenue and a shrinking bridge and highway maintenance budget prevents the department from fixing all but a handful of the worst bridges each year, ODOT spokeswoman Terri Angier said.

Canada said his own experience with Coalgate schools helps him understand the agency's financial woes.

``But it looks to me like they ought to put a priority on some of these. Because there are a lot of people who travel that road _ trucks included,'' he said.

Finding the money to fix Oklahoma's crumbling transportation system will be among the top issues when the 2005 Oklahoma Legislature convenes Monday.

The task will be formidable. According to ODOT:

_More than 3,000 miles of Oklahoma's 12,266 miles of highways _ about 25 percent _ are inadequate and need to be rehabilitated or replaced.

_About one-third of Oklahoma's driving surfaces, about 4,300 miles, are in poor condition.

_A total of 135 bridges are more than 80 years old and about 150 have restricted load limits, resulting in detours and delays.

_Most troubling of all, 56 percent of highway crashes in the state occur on inadequate roads, many with no shoulders to provide a safety buffer when motorists stray off the highway.

Oklahoma's roads and bridges came under new scrutiny last year when Texan Yvonna Osborn was killed by a chunk of bridge that fell on her car as she traveled southbound on Interstate 35.

She was one of 753 people who died on Oklahoma's roads in 2004, an increase from 671 deaths in 2003.

Transportation needs will become more critical over the next two decades, when 33 percent more cars will use state highways and 70 percent more trucks will travel on interstate highways within Oklahoma, according to ODOT.

Lawmakers will look for solutions as an initiative petition to raise fuel taxes for roads and bridges moves closer to a statewide vote.

Trucking groups and members of the House's new Republican majority oppose a fuel tax increase, preferring to raise transportation dollars by redirecting existing money from motor vehicle taxes.

A citizens group, Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads, organized last year to push for higher fuel taxes after lawmakers killed fuel tax hikes three years in a row. The group obtained 289,082 signatures, 69,518 more than was needed to force a vote, the secretary of state's office said.

The petition is pending in the state Supreme Court, where it will be examined for the sufficiency of signatures before a statewide vote is scheduled by Gov. Brad Henry.

If voters approve State Question 723, Oklahoma's 17-cent per gallon gasoline tax and 14-cent per gallon diesel tax would increase to 22 cents each, the first increase since 1987. Oklahoma's diesel tax is the lowest in the region and the gas tax is tied with Missouri and New Mexico as the lowest.

The increase would raise about $150 million a year _ money state transportation officials say is desperately needed. The proposal would also create a transportation trust fund for fuel tax revenue that could not be used for anything except highways and bridges.

``We certainly agree with it,'' said ODOT's Angier. The agency's $140 million highway and bridge maintenance budget will be further strained over the next three years as it struggles to pay an annual $69 million debt service on an $850 million road building program begun in the 1990s.

``The main issue is safety,'' Angier said. ``That is what the people trust us for, their safety.''

``We're seeing substantial increases in the number of fatalities in this state,'' said Neal McCaleb, Secretary of Transportation under former Gov. Frank Keating and president of Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads.

McCaleb said he supports higher fuel taxes in spite of the anti-tax reputation he earned while Republican leader in the House in the early 1980s.

``I have never seen a good time for a tax increase. But sometimes there are circumstances that make funding of public needs imperative,'' he said.

The Oklahoma Trucking Association, which represents 350 truck lines in the state, opposes higher fuel taxes, which executive director Dan Case said would add to the financial burden truckers bear from high fuel costs.

Instead, Case said the group supports a measure by Rep. Jim Newport, R-Ponca City, that reallocates 45 percent of motor vehicle taxes deposited in the general fund. It eventually would raise $180 million for roads and bridges, Newport said.

``We're all for fixing the roads and bridges,'' Case said. ``We feel like this is the kind of bill that would fix the roads and bridges without a tax increase.''