Shortfall may defer state road projects

Monday, September 8th 2008, 1:51 pm
By: News 9

Staff and Wire Reports

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The state Transportation Commission has postponed almost $83 million in state highway projects because of a projected shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund.

Transportation Director Gary Ridley said Monday the slowing economy and conservation efforts due to high gas prices has meant fewer transportation dollars are flowing into the federal fund.

"We knew that it was getting to this point, however, just as recently as a few months ago, it was believed that this would not happen until 2009," Ridley said.

Ridley says Oklahoma and other states tap into the fund to reimburse state spending on federally approved road projects. But U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says the fund could be exhausted as early as next week.

Ridley says Congress and President Bush must act quickly to avoid prolonged delays in state highway projects.

ODOT officials' action at Monday's meeting:

  • Postpones $80 million in projects that were bid in August,
  • Could result in the cancellation of the September bid letting, which totals nearly $60 million,
  • Makes possible a delay of work orders on already awarded projects, and
  • Suspends right-of-way acquisition on future projects.

Officials also will look for ways to stop construction on existing projects while maintaining public safety.

Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe has announced his support for legislation to restore $8 billion to the Highway Trust Fund.

Oklahomans historically have paid more into the fund than they receive in the form of federal highway construction projects, officials said.

Federal dollars make up 85 percent of the ODOT construction work plan while state revenues are focused on day-to-day repairs and routine upkeep, officials said.

Rep. Richard Morrissette (D-Oklahoma City) is a member of the House Transportation Subcommittee. He said the state's highways are built largely in part by using federal funds.

"Without that money, there basically wouldn't be any road work here in Oklahoma," Morrissette said.

The state of Oklahoma depends more on those endangered funds, compared to the neighboring states.

"This isn't a problem we got into overnight," Crystal Drwenski of Restore T.R.U.S.T. said. "This is an 80-year-old problem and we can't fix it overnight."

Drwenski and her group asked state lawmakers to continue a new trend which involves using taxpayers' money.

"For the last three years, the legislature has continued to increase road funding and has done a great job of taking funding that has been flat-lined for almost 30 years and increasing it significantly," Drwenski said.

The more money that flows into transportation, the less money allocated to other groups.

Contractors said, if the financial issues continue to escalate to the point where the state begins shutting down ongoing construction projects, the real losers would be construction workers.

"If we have other work, we'll let them work. If we don't, they're just going to have to go home," said Bob Lemon of Haskell Lemon Construction. "They're all paid by the hour and if they don't work, they don't get paid, and it's like a temporary layoff."

State transportation officials said the possible layoff would be devastating to the state.