MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

April 8, 2014

Road projects at risk if school fund plan OK'd, ODOT director says

He warns of 'significant number' of delays from diversion


Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Several major road projects across the state will face significant delays if the Legislature pushes forward with a plan to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from transportation to education over the next several years, Oklahoma’s transportation director said Monday.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation Director Mike Patterson said the department would be able to maintain its emphasis on reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges, but other projects — such as highway paving and two major interstate interchange redesigns in Oklahoma City — could face delays.

“There’s a significant number of projects that will have to be taken out of the eight-year plan,” Patterson said, referring to a prioritized list of road and bridge projects developed through recommendations from ODOT field engineers and approved by the Transportation Commission. “The eight-year plan will actually turn into a nine- or ten-year plan.

“We understand the Legislature has some issues and priorities that they must address. Given our druthers, there are other dedicated revenues and sources of revenue that they might want to investigate.”

The bill, approved by a Senate committee last week, would divert half the “off-the-top” money currently dedicated to fund transportation projects and redirect it to the common education funding formula for K-12 schools. Transportation is slated to receive $59 million this year, and that annual funding will rise every year until the road and bridge fund receives $575 million, which is currently scheduled to happen in 2018. The bill would instead direct half of the road and bridge money to education, starting with $29.8 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The funding stream is referred to as “off-the-top” revenue because it is diverted to transportation before it reaches the state’s General Revenue Fund, the primary fund used to pay for state government programs.

The bill next goes to the full Senate, although both Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, have expressed reservations. Bingman said last week he couldn’t support the bill in its current form because of its impact on the roads program, and Hickman said Monday he doesn’t believe the majority of his caucus will endorse it.

“We’re continuing to look at ways to get dollars into the classroom, but I think to go backwards on a commitment we’ve made on roads and bridges, I don’t think is the way our caucus is going to want to move forward,” Hickman said after a weekly meeting of the Republican caucus.

The diversion of revenue to transportation was a top priority for Republicans after they took control of the House in 2004, when more than 1,100 of the state’s 6,800 bridges were determined to be structurally deficient. The latest figures show that number has been reduced to 468 structurally deficient bridges, Patterson said.