Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) budget cuts hit northeast Oklahoma hard.

MIAMI – There is no money in the state to fix or replace the Twin Bridges in Ottawa County over the Neosho and Spring rivers. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) announced this week the project to replace the 75-year-old bridges would be cut from the Eight-year Construction Work Plan due to $840 million in cumulative state funding reductions since 2010.

ODOT just announced this last July the Twin Bridges over the Neosho and Spring Rivers on US Highway 60 would become one large span bridge to replace the two aging bridges. The bridge would have been one of the most significant ODOT infrastructure projects in the area included in ODOT’s Eight-year Plan.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration had the project programmed to start construction in 2024. The total estimated cost of the project without mitigation costs was expected to come in at $29.2 to $32 million.

According to ODOT Division 8 Public Information Manager, Kenna Mitchell some aspects of the project are still included in this Eight-year Plan in case funding were to become available at some point in time.

“The Eight –year Plan gets revisited every year depending on projected available funding, so right now it is still in the plan as far as the utility and the right-of-way work. We have that scheduled in there for 2023,” Mitchell said. “It’s disappointing certainly that the construction component is out of the Eight-year plan, but the good news is we’re still trying to keep it on track at this point.”

ODOT Budget shortfalls

Decades of deferred infrastructure improvements, especially bridges, has forced ODOT to cut some projects and slow down others considerably previously included on the list. From fiscal years 2018 to 2025 in the plan, the agency's budget has been balanced to reflect the downfall in state and federal funding.

“It was very challenging and frustrating to rebalance the Eight-year Plan while keeping our commitment on structurally deficient bridges and trying to address pavement conditions and urban highway congestion,” ODOT Executive Director Mike Patterson said. “The cumulative state funding reductions since 2010 have produced a snowball effect where projects have been pushed back later and later, and now they’re being pushed out of the plan, which changes our strategy and moves us in the wrong direction.”

Information included in an ODOT press release states overall, 40 construction projects totaling more than $204 million were removed from the updated Eight-year Plan, and about 42 percent of all programmed projects are being delayed at least one year, including 65 projects that were originally scheduled to go to bid this year. Additionally, several projects have been significantly reduced in scope in order to stretch funding as far as possible.

The FFY 2018-2025 Eight-year Plan includes; $6.3 billion in federal and state transportation funding, 1,448 total projects (nearly 170 fewer than the previous plan, 764 highway bridge replacements or major rehabilitations (60 fewer than the last plan). Only 15 bridges were added, compared to 44 in the previous plan.

696 miles of added shoulders or other improvements to two-lane highways (55 fewer miles), nearly 150 miles of interstate pavement improvements and nearly $370 million in projects to address urban highway congestion.

Examples of previously scheduled projects that have been removed from the new plan include work as part of realignment of US-70 around Madill and the $32 million replacement of the US-60 bridges over the Neosho and Spring rivers in Ottawa County. Delayed rural projects include reconstruction and widening of US-270 near Mutual in Woodward County, which was delayed from FFY 2018 to 2019. In Oklahoma’s urban areas, reconstruction of US-75 along the east leg of the Inner Dispersal Loop in downtown Tulsa and I-40 interchange reconstruction and widening at Douglas Blvd. in Midwest City were delayed two years and five years, respectively.

Twin Bridges

The Twin Bridges project was considered by ODOT for replacement also due to traffic safety concerns at the location.

“I would say two things, first is safety is a number one priority for us, so we’re going to continue to maintain the area. If anything does develop we’ll certainly try to address it to keep everything in good working order,” Mitchell said. “But it’s also a good reminder too just to drivers to make sure that when they are behind the wheel, they’re giving full attention to the roadway to have that driver responsibility part of the equation as well.”

Mitchell said ODOT’s Division 8 continues to fight for the Twin Bridges project to resume construction when the budget allows.

“It’s kind of hard for us to do this because this is ‘our baby,' if you will,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to do what we can to keep it on track.”

Area projects

Another Ottawa County ODOT project, the State Highway 10 bridge over the Spring River will move forward with plans to begin the construction work process Nov. 6. A re-decking of the Neosho River bridge is moving forward with some slight delay but is still scheduled for construction in 2018.

“As far as I know the ones that have been awarded contracts, those are still good to go,” Mitchell said. “I will say this, Northeast Oklahoma, our Division 8, we had to shift around 60 percent of our planned projects from last year to this year. The statewide average is about 43 percent of the projects got moved, so certainly we’re going to be feeling it a little bit more in northeast Oklahoma. It might not be an immediate impact because some of these were a few years out, but it’s something that we’re going to have to be extra vigilant on our maintenance. We revisit the plan every year, and it’s the first time we’ve had this much of an impact to it from the budget cuts.”

Mitchell said the ODOT projects removed or shifted around were projects scheduled further out in the Eight-year Plan.

“As I understand it, the SH 125 Decking has been delayed which we are okay with because it will allow us time to design the approach to the bridge and get that project budgeted, Miami City Manager Dean Kruithof said. “ My long-range hope is that the legislature is able to repair the budget funding issues during the legislative session which will allow ODOT to return to their regular schedule.”

Impact

Project delays ultimately cost Oklahoma taxpayers in increased maintenance necessary to preserve highways and bridges and higher construction costs, which are up 67 percent nationally since 2003. In addition to direct financial costs, Oklahomans also will spend more time stuck in traffic congestion and face rougher roads, according to ODOT.

While the plan’s top priority remains replacing or rehabilitating Oklahoma’s existing structurally deficient highway bridges by the end of the decade, it falls short on other major needs including improving pavement conditions, adding shoulders to two-lane highways and addressing growing urban highway congestion. Even as the state nears its decade-old goal to address all remaining structurally deficient highway bridges by 2020, ODOT estimates that 90 bridges will still have to be replaced or rehabilitated each year just to keep up with the aging infrastructure system. Only 15 bridges were added to this Eight-year Plan.

ODOT’s Asset Preservation Plan contains preventative maintenance projects designed to extend the life of transportation infrastructure. The more than $473 million plan has nearly 400 projects addressing 147 bridges and more than 1,200 miles of pavement. The plan also features 44 projects to improve highways to Americans with Disabilities Act standards with curb ramps, traffic signal push buttons for pedestrians, crosswalks, and sidewalks.

According to ODOT, since being first implemented in its current format in 2003, ODOT’s Eight-year Plan has focused on addressing the state’s greatest transportation needs in a transparent, accountable and businesslike manner without political influence. These infrastructure improvements have been linked directly to economic growth. The project selection process is very rigorous, as transportation commissioners work with ODOT’s field division engineers and staff to identify the most critical highway and bridge projects and create a balanced statewide plan with anticipated federal and state funding. Each year, the plan is updated to reflect project completions, adjustments in projected revenue and changes in construction costs. As the previous fiscal year comes off of the plan, another year is added based on forecasting of available funding. Funding comes from state income tax allocation and state motor fuel tax appropriation, as well as the federal Highway Trust Fund.

“When we’re in this situation where we’ve had six of the last eight years we’ve had some funding taken from us from the state legislature to help balance the state budget – we’ve tried to keep as many things in the Eight-year Plan as long as we could. Those were already the projects that were the most critically needed projects statewide, so now we’re having to look at what’s the most critical of the most critical,” Mitchell said. “Really, it almost took us back down to kind of the blank slate of this is what we have, this is what we need - what can we do? We’ve got to keep the roads safe, and safe for drivers. It was a very hard time for us in this re-balancing process.”

A full list and map of highway projects in ODOT’s Eight-year Construction Work Plan and Asset Preservation Plan can be viewed at www.odot.org under Programs and Projects.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.