Paul Zachary has worked for the city of Tulsa for 15 years. In that time, he's never seen the kind of road-building frenzy that's going on right now.
"This is the most money we've ever had," the city's deputy director of engineering said. "And in terms of the number of projects, yeah, that too. And we're going to ramp it up even more."
Zachary was one of a host of city officials who gathered May 25 at the QuikTrip splash park at 41st Street and Riverside Drive to talk about the status of the city's massive streets reconstruction program and its impact on drivers. With projects going on seemingly all over the city these days, it's virtually impossible for motorists to travel more than a few miles in any direction and not encounter a road construction site.
For those already weary of the delays and inconvenience caused by the work, there wasn't a lot of good news that came out of the press conference. Zachary said it would be 2015 or 2016 before all the projects currently being planned are completed.
But for drivers even more exasperated with Tulsa's notoriously bad roads, the message from city officials was heartening: The city is finally addressing that problem head on.
"We're regaining the upper hand and maintaining our streets system," Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. said.
Bartlett praised Tulsa citizens for voting in favor of a number of proposed streets projects in the past five years and said city officials appreciate that support.
"We heard it loud and clear," he said. "We are delivering progress as promised."
As of last week, street construction projects were taking place at 18 arterial street locations and eight non-arterial, or neighborhood, locations. One of those sites -- Riverside Drive between 61st Street and 56th Street -- was scheduled to be completed last week, while another -- Peoria Avenue between 36th Street North and 56th Street North -- was targeted for completion this week.
The city has 58 projects in the construction phase and 122 projects in design. According to city officials, in the next 12 months, 47 street projects will be advertised, though their impact for most drivers is not likely to be as noticeable. Only four of those projects will take place on arterial streets, while 38 will occur in neighborhoods. Five more are trails projects.
Funding for the projects comes from a variety of sources, city officials said, including sales tax revenue, bond issue money and federal stimulus dollars. The latter source was available only for "shovel-ready" projects, lending a sense of urgency to Tulsa's road-construction effort.
Zachary said work began in July 2009 when city officials received $11 million, primarily for design work. The city received another $70 million in December 2009, and that total of $81 million now is funding 48 projects.
Among the projects now taking place, Zachary said three -- East 81st Street between South Memorial Drive and South Mingo Road, the intersection of East 91st Street and South Sheridan Road and South Lewis Avenue between East 61st Street and East 75th Street -- rank as the most significant.
"Those are the biggest ones with the most challenges," he said, noting that in many cases, road work has been accompanied by electrical, telephone, water and storm sewer line relocations, all of which are dragging out the process.
Additionally, in the case of the South Lewis Avenue project, he said, the street is hemmed in on both sides by a bar ditch.
"It's an extremely tight right of way," he said. "Having that deep ditch on the side of the road limits what we can do with contractors."
Zachary said many of the projects currently underway feature long, linear work sites.
"Those zones may appear empty in certain areas, but they are buffer zones," he said.
City officials spent much of the press conference pleading for patience on the part of motorists and reminding them to proceed with caution through construction zones, where workers routinely find themselves in close proximity to passing vehicles. Zachary said there haven't been any unfortunate incidents yet, "just complaints about traffic."
Zachary said when work begins on a project, it typically takes motorists about six weeks to adjust.
"Then the complaints start to trail off," he said. "People start figuring it out. That's why we're getting the word out as much as we can about construction zones and construction zone etiquette."
Zachary acknowledged the frustration many motorists feel when they see a lane closed by orange construction barrels even when no work is taking place. Those closures can occur for a variety of reasons that are not readily apparent to drivers, he said, but the most basic one might be creating consistent expectations for those who pass through the area on a regular basis -- a "normalization" of traffic, as city officials put it.
"You really have to narrow it down and get people's attention with signage," he said. "It's all about minimizing the number of decisions a driver has to make when they get in a construction zone ... when a driver can anticipate that, it's fantastic."
Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan also spoke, emphasizing the need for motorists to obey reduced speed limits through construction zones and heed restrictions on left turns. He also encouraged anyone involved in a non-injury accident in a work zone to move their car out of the roadway before contacting police.
"We don't want to cause gridlock," he said.
Even though the abundance of projects is causing problems for many motorists, Bartlett said doing so many of them now is yielding a major benefit.
"We're taking advantage of lower pricing," he said. "Prices are relatively lower than they were a few years ago. The monies we're spending now are really going a long way."
Another reason to initiate so much work now, he said, is to keep Tulsa's well-documented road deficiencies from getting worse, he said.
"If we defer maintenance too long, it doesn't become a maintenance project -- it becomes a rebuilding project," he said.
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