Oklahoma's Department of Transportation (ODOT) held a public hearing at Tulsa's Central Library on Aug. 25 to discuss its long-range 2035 Plan. It comes at almost the same time as the Council's approval of PLANiTULSA (a hugely important vote for sensible planning, significant for its unanimity. It's one good thing that Council and Mayor have agreed on lately). So, it's a good time to be thinking about long-term transportation dilemmas.
Broadly speaking, ODOT manages the connections between cities and between us and neighboring states -- big roads, railroads and bridges. Some of those big roads run right through cities, such as Tulsa's Inner Dispersal Loop. Public Works departments manage the spaghetti of roads inside cities and neighborhoods. The County manages rural, county roads.
Transportation is there to get us from one place to another place, efficiently. Yet, Tulsans spend on average $246 more per month on traveling than we do on housing. It's crazy.
Many households undergo severe hardship when gas prices hiccup. 96 percent of all commutes here are by car -- of necessity, since that's how the City has been designed for the last couple of generations.
Tulsa is two-and-a-half times more dangerous than the national average for pedestrians. It invests less than half the national average in pedestrian- and cyclist-related infrastructure. We rank 48th out of 50 in sustainability among the USA's "most populous cities."
When transportation infrastructure is badly designed, we all suffer, economically and environmentally. Unsurprisingly, Tulsa is likely soon to be added to the EPA's Naughty List for dirty air. The penalty will lead to higher gas prices.
Like many other states, Oklahoma's DOT faces a Herculean task. Its inventory of bridges and roads is aging even faster than we are. Many of our State bridges are at least 80-years-old.
The good news is that ODOT accepts that climate change is a reality -- unlike the redoubtable Senator Jim Inhofe, who recently declared victory over (a) several thousands of climate scientists, (b) Oklahoma's Climatological Survey and (c) the City of Tulsa, which in 2007 signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.
Oklahoma is likely to suffer at least as much as any other state from climate change, for the same reason that we experience more than our share of tornadoes. ODOT has to budget to fix the resulting -- and growing -- damage to infrastructure.
Oklahoma's Climatological Survey team in Norman recommended back in Oct. 2007: "First, the state should undertake a comprehensive assessment of Oklahoma's social and economic vulnerability to climate variability as well as climate change. Learning to adapt to nature's extremes now will yield benefits in reduced disaster losses, regardless of the future trajectory of climate change." And the U.S. Mayors Agreement urges: "Promote transportation options such as bicycle trails, commute trip reduction programs, incentives for car pooling and public transit."
To what degree does ODOT's long-range planning take these into account?
ODOT spends about $400 million a year, 99 percent of it on roads/bridges. It's not enough even to keep up, and it will never be enough. But only one percent of the budget is invested in mass transit. ODOT's management culture, skills, equipment, contractors, methodologies, standards, etc., are overwhelmingly about the automobile (and trucks).
The federal government hasn't increased gasoline tax (18.4 cents per gallon) since 1993. Oklahoma's state gasoline tax is 17 cents per gallon -- 40 percent below the national average.
Meanwhile, the federal government has announced a major shift in emphasis toward rail, mass transit and sustainable neighborhoods.
In Feb. 2010, Secretary Ray Lahood of the federal DOT announced the government's intention to develop a world-class rail system in the next 20 years -- much as it has spent the past 50 developing a federal highway system. This makes a lot of sense to consumers; although the auto industry and auto-fixated Public Works departments around the country are predictably lukewarm.
According to ODOT's research, many Oklahomans are excited about the potential for rail -- especially those who have tried it. A large dollop of federal funding (we were told at the Hearing), is available to States for rail investment. States just have to shell out only $1 for every four federal dollars. It's a very good deal.
But how much is ODOT and the state really likely to pony up for a much more balanced and climate-friendly transportation system, when the list of un-fixed roads and bridges seems so pressing -- and familiar? Yet invest in rail and in other, greener forms of transit we absolutely must, if we are ever to become anything approaching a truly sustainable community. Oklahomans also risk being shut out of the economic race if ODOT does not step up to this challenge.
A genuine commitment to paradigm change has to come from the top. ODOT's draft planning document lists livability and sustainability among its goals. ODOT's design of arteries through urban areas must be much more sensitive to human needs. Its senior managers must listen to and collaborate creatively and willingly with communities and with enlightened city planners. Transportation designers must re-think design around facilitating sustainable neighborhoods -- for pedestrians; to calm traffic; to design streets so that children, seniors and the wheelchair-bound can enjoy using them safely; to reduce setbacks; and to develop attractive, urban landscaping.
Cyclists, pedestrians and wheelchairs inflict zero damage to infrastructure and the environment. A single bus can replace 40 cars.
Effective leadership comes from true conviction. The Feds have done a good job in setting the example. The Department of Transportation, Housing & Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health & Human Services have all clambered out of their silos in the last year or so and are collaborating impressively. Federal funding policy has also been transformed.
With the approval of PLANiTULSA, Tulsa is showing signs of growing up as a city. It's about time, since Oklahoma City among others is eating our lunch -- and it shows in the tax revenue figures. ODOT must get to grips with new realities, too. ODOT representatives at the Hearing showed us a pretty picture of a federally-funded, multi-model bridge destined for the Arkansas River, designed to carry road, rail and bikes ... and told us that it will not be carrying trains any time soon.
Some people think that a long-range plan is just something they have to write every few years, which gathers dust in between obligatory updates. But it should be a route map that arises from a fundamental re-evaluation of an organization's purpose, relevance, strategies, resources, systems and budgets; and the resulting Plan should guide all short-term decisions and actions.
The federal highway system may well be the greatest transportation system the world has seen. Now it's time to invent the next system to complement it -- one geared to creating communities that are sustainable in fiscal, environmental and economic terms.
Jamie Jamieson is vice-Chair of Alliance for an Accessible City. For more background visit www.oklongrangeplan.com, www.dot.gov/livability , www.PLANiTULSA.org, www.walkabletulsa.org and www.saferoutesinfo.org.
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