Coburn, Carson and the "New Crosstown"

  Recent articles in the DAILY OKLAHOMAN make it appear that US Senatorial candidates Tom Coburn and Brad Carson have gladly embraced not only funding the "New I-40 Crosstown" but also handing over as much money as possible to ODOT for the benefit of the state's highway contractors.

It may well be that both camps have been threatened by the highway contracting lobby - and that apparently no counterbalancing interest has offered the credible prospect of offsetting the financial clout of that lobby. The citizenry needs to write and otherwise contact both camps urging and encouraging the campaigns not to give in to special interest threats or (especially) to the pressure of thoroughly compromised current members of the state congressional delegation.

Obviously, both camps understand that "they can't govern if they can't get elected."

The shameful fact is, that in Oklahoma the power of the highway contractors is impressive -- and they are very aggressively throwing their weight around. It's time the citizenry brings them to heel.

Just how much money are our elected officials willing to pour into the 4-mile "New I-40 Crosstown project?" $200 million? $300 million? More?

In a state with so much bad road, why is "4-miles of highway in downtown Oklahoma City" so important -- and how does spending all this money on that project benefit Oklahomans in other areas of the state? In fact, the Crosstown is duplicate highway. Its route is made redundant to critical through traffic by existing bypasses and plenty of auxiliary access to downtown is available via surface streets.

Many now understand that the "New Crosstown project" would completely obliterate the irreplaceable Oklahoma City Union Station rail yard. From this yard -- six blocks long and 12 track beds wide -- existing rail lines link the beautiful station terminal building, purchased with a federal transit grant by OKC Transit in 1989 for the express purpose of development as a regional transit center, to strategic locations all over the region. The yard and its rail connections are arguably superior to those cost-effectively transformed into very successful rail transit systems in Dallas, Denver and other western cities. Still, the highway builders at ODOT never considered such use for the elegant Union Station complex. For them the rail yard is merely a convenient corridor for more concrete.

The "New Crosstown" project is very much a "pre-9-11-01 plan in the post 9-11-01 world." However, even prior to 9-11-01, the extravagant and destructive plan was profoundly troubling considering only its own merits as a highway project:

1. You would not invest your family's money in this project!  It may well require as much as $500 million up front - only to provide a funnel inviting every single truck on I-40 right through the heart of OKC, each truck paying as little as 20 cents on the dollar against the damage it inflicts on that new road. If you should be so foolish as to "invest," you would never see a dividend. What we will ALL see, however, is future demands for "more maintenance money" from ODOT.

2. ODOT leadership has no credibility. This is an agency whose policies have racked up $40 billion in unfunded highway maintenance liability -- that's $11,592.01 in such liability for every citizen of the state.

Instead of fulfilling its obvious function as a responsible manager of state transport assets and reliable advisor to state elected officials and taxpayers, ODOT leadership has long been merely a mouthpiece for the aims and goals of the highway lobby. The "tail is wagging the dog." The "fox is managing the hen house." It is a truly shameful and transparently counterproductive situation.

3. The REAL problem with state roads was eloquently exposed by the late Bobby Green in a paper he wrote as ODOT Director in 1991: "As a result of the continual increases in truck sizes and weights, as well as the phenomenal growth in the numbers of heavy trucks using these major routes (a 38% increase between 1980 and 1990), Oklahoma's highway facilities are deteriorating at a rate which exceeds our financial capacity to replace or even repair them."

By the end of the 1990s, truck volume was growing on state roads at about 45% a year.

Interestingly, Oklahoma's unfunded highway maintenance liability is also apparently growing at about 45% a year under the wheels of trucks certainly paying three cents per gallon less state fuel trucks than automobiles pay and probably paying only about three cents per mile against minimum damage recovery costs of fifteen cents per mile on the state's "free roads."

Despite these prodigious troubles, current ODOT leadership carefully avoids talking about the real trouble. During their 2001 "town meeting" tour of the state, they used a slick, appealing video presentation whose narrator claimed "the chief source of roadway maintenance need is WATER..." Heavy trucks were not mentioned as damagers of roads.

Why does trucking get "a pass" from the current state transport leadership? Roads damaged by trucking feed the highway contractors and the taxpayers are caught in the unholy crossfire.

4. Today, in a state with 1,600 bad bridges and some of the worst highways in the nation, ODOT's chief priority for federal transportation funding is hundreds of millions of dollars for four miles of hyper-expensive, duplicate highway in downtown Oklahoma City -- at the behest of the same downtown developers and interests that brought us "Bass Pro." If this doesn't beg careful scrutiny, nothing does.

5. On a WKY radio talk show yesterday morning (Jim Traber's show, Tuesday 8-24-04), Congressman Carson said, in effect, "no need to worry -- any and all moneys that go to the Crosstown will come from the Federal Highway Trust Fund..." However, far from the righteous instrument Istook and Inhofe claim it to be, the Federal Highway Trust Fund is actually a black curtain behind which the taxpayers are forced to massively subsidize the congress' "buddies," the commercial trucking industry.

A superficial review reveals that fully two-thirds of the moneys comprising that trust fund come NOT from the chief source of highway damage, commercial trucking, but from the unknowing taxpayers.

The single most pivotal, most meaningful issue -- calling trucking to accountability for the costs it imposes on public roadways -- is the issue congress refuses to touch.


2001 Total Non-Mass Transit contributions to the Federal Highway Trust Fund: $26,573,772,000.00

2001 Gasoline and Gasohol tax revenues to FHTF:           $17,940,926,000.00 (67%)

2001 Diesel and special fuels w/ tire, truck, bus and trailer excise tax
and Federal HVUT (Heavy Vehicle Use Tax) added:          $ 8,975,476,000.00  (33%)

By the way -- as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, when has Jim Inhofe ever addressed the need to tackle the disparity between the trucking contribution and the contribution of the driving public to the Trust Fund? Inhofe claims he's concerned that Oklahoma doesn't get back enough of what it sends in. Why isn't he just as concerned that the driving public is forced to support the very industry chiefly responsible for the destruction of its roads, not to mention 50.64 truck-involved accidents every hour of every day on roads across the nation?

6. Clearly, ODOT serves the highway contracting lobby -- not the interests of the taxpayers of the state. Over the last few years, the highway contractors, together with their buddies in the trucking industry, have consistently, boldly lied to the people of this state about available funding and who should pay. They flat lied in their expensive "Would you miss $500 million, your roads and bridges do..." media campaign. The money they were talking about is Motor vehicle tag and registration fees -- which were never designed to go to roads. They were levied in lieu of property taxation -- which goes to the general fund where it supports the general services of government, notably public schools.

7. In the "Would you miss $500 million" campaign, the state highway lobby abrogated any claim it might ever have had to being a credible source of information for the taxpayers. They want the money and they'll clearly say anything to get it. Why should they ever be believed again?

8. As the highway lobby's "water boys," Gary Ridley and company also should never be believed again. Their lies about the existing Crosstown are many and very serious and, in fact, are fairly transparent.

As a glaring example, despite their insistence that the existing Crosstown is "structurally deficient," it has never been placarded restricting or denying use to heavy trucks. Up to one-third of the traffic carried by The Crosstown is big trucks. Many truly structurally deficient bridges across the state ARE placarded limiting truck weights.

In fact, plenty of bypass capacity for through trucks headed any direction on I-40 is available on I-44 and I-240 and the new Kilpatrick Turnpike. The cheapest, most immediate solution to "I-40 corridor continuity" would be to put up "I-40 Alternate" signs on I-44, I-240 and the Kilpatrick. With all the talk about "Intelligent Transportation System" management, ITS LCD signs might eventually be used advising through trucks to use the bypasses.

The claim "the Crosstown is an indispensable part of the I-40 Corridor" is simply wrong. The bypasses actually provide BETTER routes for through trucks, helping most of them avoid the infamous Ft. Smith Junction.

When I asked one of ODOT's key bridge engineers to comment on what I'd recently heard on good authority -- that the existing Crosstown was, in fact, not only structurally sound, but could be redecked and modernized to serve indefinitely for about $25 million, he responded, "Tom, PLEASE don't ask me to comment on that. You have no idea how much pressure we're under in this department to help sell the new highway project."

Clearly, conscientious ODOT employees are being threatened by ODOT leadership. Those threats, however, are not limited to ODOT employees. Gary Ridley has boldly threatened elected bodies and officials such as the city council of Norman. The threat is clear - "attempt to call us to accountability and we will dock your highway money."

Ridley and his handlers should be put far away from public service of any kind. They certainly are not worthy advisors for our congressional delegation.

9. The "New Crosstown" project is plainly a pork barrel deal driven by downtown OKC developers and by the highway contractors and truckers. It and the "philosophy of government" behind it must be rejected.

Any new funding for such projects comes out of a $7.34 TRILLION national debt. The money is simply not there. Funding already garnered for the "New Crosstown" is clearly at least $200 million short of ODOT's claimed "$350 million" project total.

There is every reason to believe this project will actually cost in excess of $500 million. Will that stop ODOT from trying to lock Oklahomans into the project by starting construction anyhow? One look at the "Capitol Dome" fiasco should answer that question. ODOT and the contracting lobby it represents have long been allowed to practice "government by fait accompli." They will do that on the "New Crosstown" if they are allowed to get away with it. It must be stopped.

10. Destruction of the OKC Union Station rail yard cripples non highway alternatives.

This may be quite important to other key state issues such as the threat to our military bases posed by the upcoming round of BRAC. Washington military leaders and others have said that "quality of life" for military families who live on the smaller, more remote bases will be a big consideration in which survive the cuts. Many military families have lived in Britain, Japan and Germany. They KNOW the value of rail transport - and, while they're glad to be back in the states, they MISS "the trains."

From OKC Union Station, existing rail lines link Altus AFB to Ft. Sill to Tinker AFB via downtown OKC. Vance AFB and Enid are also linked to Union Station via El Reno. Even the Ammunition Plant at McAlester is on historic rail corridors linking it to Union Station. The value to military families to have inexpensive, trouble-free access to OKC and Tulsa via fast trains would be immense. Of course, others in the cities surrounding the bases would benefit as well.

Most of these rail lines are in very good condition -- although "optimum" passenger service speeds might not be available immediately. HEARTLAND FLYER service started slow (60 mph), but now through five years of consistent effort, grade-crossing and other signalization along the routes has enabled a 79 mph operational speed standard. These things take time -- but the effort should be made and the obvious value of the Union Station rail yard in inexpensively linking other cities and key military assets to each other and to the state capital should preclude its destruction.

10. The "New Crosstown" project is a microcosm of what's wrong with national transportation policy. The big shot road contractors and truckers rule in Washington just as they do in Oklahoma while their policies feed foreign oil dependency and the nation's security and economic troubles. Business as usual is simply no longer acceptable. The roadway funding situation must be cleaned up -- and cleaned up NOW.