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Road money holdup puts Oklahoma projects on hold

Marie Price
Dolan Media Newswires

Oklahoma City — Congress’ failure to extend money for federal highways means the Oklahoma Department of Transportation will have only $7.9 million to spend on road and bridge construction contracts in November rather than the $53 million officials had expected, ODOT Director Gary Ridley said.

“We had to pare that back substantially,” Ridley told the Oklahoma Transportation Commission this week.

Ridley said many projects will have to be deferred at least until December, when the agency normally does not do a contract letting, or more probably January.

He said the remaining contracts must be paid totally with state funds or federal stimulus money.

“We’re pretty comfortable that those will be let in November,” Ridley said.

He said Congress approved a stopgap measure on Sept. 30 extending funding for 30 days.

“We had hoped for an 18-month extension that would enable the states to move forward,” Ridley said.

He said the limitation comes at a time when the agency is preparing to make a $22.8 million bond payment.

The director said the current federal system for paying for highways penalizes state transportation departments by removing money that has not been authorized for spending by the states.

Congress must act before the end of October, he said, or the Federal Highway Administration will be forced to shut down.

If federal lawmakers do not act, Ridley said, Oklahoma could lose as much as $135 million in federal highway money over the next year to 18 months.

Ridley said a series of short-time-period continuing resolutions, such as what Congress approved last week, would be detrimental to state highway agencies across the country because they will be unable to plan for future needs.

“Now we’re living day to day, week to week,” he said. “We’re dealing with a lot of unknowns.”

Ridley also filled in commissioners on ODOT’s applications for $154 million in federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants.

ODOT also applied for $2 billion in high-speed rail improvements between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, as well as to the state line with Texas. Some $8.5 billion has been authorized for all states.

David Streb, director of engineering, said that as of July states had submitted more than 200 pre-application letters totaling about $115 billion in projects.

Streb said the improvements in Oklahoma’s project would allow the Heartland Flyer to increase its speed from 79 mph to 90 mph, with a true high-speed track to be built north of Turner Turnpike from Oklahoma City to Tulsa, allowing train speeds of more than 150 mph.

Ridley said he understands a decision should be reached on high-speed rail and TIGER grant recipients shortly after the first of the year.

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