City Councilor Rick Westcott said the question of when he and his colleagues might finally vote on a street rehabilitation package to submit for voters' approval "is something that is more gray today than it was a couple of days ago."
"Before the Mayor's proposal, one way or another, I thought we were headed for an end-of-August ballot, whatever proposal we put out there," he told UTW.
To widen or not to widen was the question previously under discussion, and the debate was primarily between Councilors Bill Christiansen and Bill Martinson.
Christian has argued that the package ought to include projects to widen some streets in anticipation of future growth, while Martinson, who led the streets subcommittee responsible for the original rehabilitation plan, has argued for a simple "back to basics" approach by limiting the package to existing infrastructure.
In the past, he's argued that the plan might fail if voters are asked to approve too expansive and expensive a package at once.
In an effort to settle the issue, Mayor Kathy Taylor proposed a compromise last week that was, except for a couple of new features, identical to the original plan proposed by Martinson's street committee: a twelve year plan running from 2010 to 2021 to raise the streets' Pavement Condition Index from a "D"-grade to a "C," which would cost about $2 billion and be funded by extending existing sales taxes and increasing property taxes by 3.3 mills.
Taylor's proposal includes a sales tax rebate for seniors and low-income households.
Also, it includes $120 million in street widening projects, which is lower than the $145 million Christiansen was asking. He calculated that the city would spend in 12 years for widening projects anyway.
The Mayor's proposed projects would turn five one-mile stretches of two-lane roads in south Tulsa into four-lane roads.
Four of the projects are in Christiansen's district: 81st St. between Yale and Harvard avenues, 91st St. between Yale and Harvard, 81st St. between Sheridan Road. and Memorial Dr., and 91st St. between Memorial and Mingo Road.
The fifth project is in Councilor John Eagleton's 7th District: Mingo Road. between 71st and 81st streets.
While Taylor offered her plan in the hopes of setting the argument to rest, Westcott, for one, said it doesn't quite accomplish that.
"I don't know that the Mayor's proposal eliminates the debate, but it does refine it a little bit," he said.
Indeed, the two Bills are still at it, but the argument has shifted from whether the widening should occur to which streets ought to be widened.
Martinson still isn't excited about the prospect of including widening projects in the package. But, he said, if expansions are included, there should be more discussion about which projects are undertaken, and why.
The expansion projects proposed by the Mayor are recommendations from the city's Public Works Department, which were drawn from a list of 47 priority projects.
"If you take the list that Public Works ran, if you just look at it a couple of different ways, you can come up with a whole different list of projects," Martinson told UTW.
Paul Zachary, the deputy director of the engineering services division of the Public Works Department, explained that the projects are prioritized according to 11 criteria.
Congestion, or a street's volume-capacity ratio, comprises 25 percent of the weight of a project's priority; public safety is 20 percent; and the rest are considerations having to do with the city "getting more bang for their buck," so to speak, such as economic development infill, delivery and readiness for the project to proceed, how much access the project would provide to critical facilities, and its relationship to other projects, he said.
But, Martinson said the Council should have the opportunity to decide which criteria should have more weight in determining which widening projects to include.
"I don't know what the right list is, but if we're going to talk about widening, we'd better look at all the aspects of it before we jump in and ask the voters to approve a list," he said.
"To come up with that and expect us to vote on it immediately is unfair to the whole process," he added.
In Martinson's view, public safety should be the top priority in determining which projects should proceed.
"I've got a lot of respect for the public works guys, and this is certainly no reflection on them at all, but I think we certainly have some issues we need to address, such as public safety. I am not going to put convenience for a certain area of town ahead of public safety for everybody else," he said.
"Again, I'm not saying that list is wrong. I'm just saying what we need to do as a City Council is look at that list and see if that's the same list we would come up with," he added.
Martinson also took issue knowing that four of the five recommended projects happen to be in Christiansen's district.
"Depending on how you sort the data, Christiansen has basically been able to convince everyone that the only widening issues are in south Tulsa, and that's just patently not true. We've also got areas where congestion is a concern," he said.
He pointed to the stretch of Yale Ave. between 21st and 31st streets as an example.
"I don't know if you've ever tried to get to and from the fairgrounds when they're having an event, but Yale is just nothing but stacked-up. And that's not even in my council district, by the way, so I'm not being parochial about it," Martinson explained.
But, the other Bill is just fine with the Mayor's proposal.
"I'm satisfied. I think it's a good, fair, equitable, comprehensive plan that has positive things in it for all of the city," said Christiansen.
He said Martinson is "throwing darts at the Public Works Department's philosophy on widening."
"Mayor Taylor said we have experts in the Public Works Department that have been here for years and have worked on this for years, and have seen the traffic, seen the analysis. They make the plans, and this is what her professionals are recommending," Christiansen said.
"And believe me, I don't think Mayor Taylor--knowing her the way I know her, would pander to me in any way to satisfy me. Widening is widening, but the vast majority of needs for widening are down here," he added.
Indeed, Zachary defended his recommendations, and his methodology for prioritizing.
He said public safety isn't the Public Works Department's weightiest criteria for widening projects because widening doesn't always improve public safety.
"Adding a lane is not always the solution to traffic safety," Zachary said, adding that there are times when street expansion might actually hinder public safety, and that signage and other considerations often come into play before widening.
But, since his constituents apparently have the most to gain if the Mayor's proposal is accepted by the Council, Christiansen was asked why a voter, say, in north Tulsa should vote for it.
He answered there are already numerous four-lane roads throughout the city with less traffic on them than most of the two-lane roads in south Tulsa.
Also, he said, District 8 stands to benefit less from a package dealing strictly with rehabilitation of existing streets, since much of its infrastructure is new, but will wear out sooner with the ever-increasing congestion.
"The other thing to remember is that District 8 still has a lot of land available for residential development and commercial development. So, we're still growing the tax base out here that helps pay for police and fire throughout the city, so it is wise to widen out here," Christiansen said.
So, will the Mayor's proposal put the debate to rest?
"I can't speak for other councilors, but I have the sense that all of the councilors are in favor of her package, except for Bill Martinson," Christiansen answered.
One of his fellow councilors concurred, but with a caveat.
"My feeling is that most Councilors are in agreement that the Mayor's idea is a good idea is a good proposal," said Westcott.
But, he added, "I personally think re-prioritizing the projects the way that Martinson has proposed is the best way to do it."
"Over the last day or two since the Mayor has come up with this proposal, there is a lot of feeling on the Council that, whatever we do, we have got to get this right. This is the one chance to do this job right, and we cannot goof it up," Westcott continued, explaining that Councilor G.T. Bynum's idea of putting the street election off until November is gaining support as a result of Taylor's proposal.
Regarding the ongoing "street fight" between the Bills, Westcott said, "We're all trying to the find the best way to fix the problem of the condition of the streets, and the problem is, in some parts of town, the need for expansion. And even though some of the councilors have been vocal in their disagreement, they're disagreeing on how best to solve the problem. So, even in the midst of all of this, they're still trying to solve the problem for the citizens."
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