Transportation officials suspend work on several highway projects
Tuesday, May 2 2017 | by Randy Ellis
Citing state budgeting uncertainties, Oklahoma transportation officials announced Monday that they have suspended construction on about a dozen highway projects, including the next phase of the I-240/I-35 interchange project in south Oklahoma City.
"That's going to give us a black eye," Oklahoma Transportation Commission Chairman J. David Burrage said, describing the situation as "bad."
Burrage made his remark after another commissioner noted that many contractors already have bought materials for projects that are being suspended. Companies that suffer financial losses because of work suspensions likely will file claims with the agency, officials said.
The dozen or so suspended contracts may be just the beginning of construction disruptions throughout the state.
The Oklahoma Transportation Commission voted Monday to defer action on the award of nine new highway construction projects.
In addition, Executive Director Mick Patterson announced he had sent a memo to his division engineers Monday asking them to scrutinize a list of 80 previously awarded projects.
The division engineers were asked to come up with a plan by May 17 "to responsibly suspend construction activities at a date to be determined later once we know the full effects of the current budget process."
State transportation officials decided not to wait before ordering the suspension of about 10 of those projects, including the next phase of the I-240/I35 interchange project, since construction had either not yet begun or was in the very early stages of those projects, Patterson said.
Patterson told commissioners Monday that the agency had little choice other than to begin making cuts as the Oklahoma Legislature continues to grapple with next fiscal year's $878 million budget hole.
A joint Legislative appropriations committee passed a bill out of committee last week that calls for cutting the amount of income tax revenue the transportation department is scheduled to receive from $571 million to $320 million, which would be a loss of $251 million, Patterson said.
There have been some legislative discussions about getting some of that revenue back through a fuel tax increase, but Patterson said transportation officials can't count on receiving that money.
The list of 80 previously awarded projects that either already have been suspended or may be suspended in the future include several major interstate projects.
The $88 million contract to widen I-235 to six lanes from N 36th Street to just north of N 50th Street is one of those that may yet be suspended. That project, which includes the replacement of an overhead railroad bridge and highway bridge, has been causing traffic disruptions for months. Suspension of the contract could extend those disruptions.
The list also includes several interstate projects in Tulsa.
"We want to make sure that we can meet the financial obligations that we have," Patterson said. "That means that we're going to step back and take a look at what projects we can continue to pay for."
Chairman Burrage said cancellation of highway contracts will harm economic development.
"I'm extremely sensitive to this because in the rural areas, sometimes the only economic driver we've got is infrastructure," he said.
Burrage said he knew of a little under $1 billion worth of economic development projects in southeastern Oklahoma that were currently held up primarily because of infrastructure issues.
"If those projects came to fruition, unemployment in a couple of those counties would drop in half," he said.
Burrage urged lawmakers to increase the fuel tax to help highway funding.
"We've got to get out of the Stone Age," he said. "They need to step off and get this done because here we are talking about canceling projects we've already awarded."
Burrage voiced opposition to issuing another large bond issue to help fund the agency.