State transportation officials discuss highway project east of Pawhuska

Mike ErwinJournal-Capital

BARTLESVILLE — The massive improvement currently being made to U.S. Highway 60 east of Pawhuska already represents the biggest Oklahoma road project in the last half century, state transportation officials said Friday.

Officials noted, however, that much more work is scheduled along the Highway 60 corridor to the east and west of Bartlesville. All of the projects, they said, are part of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s current Eight-Year Construction Plan.

“We’re moving three million cubic yards of earth to make it work — it’s a huge project,” Oklahoma Department of Transportation Director Mike Patterson said of the five-mile realignment of Highway 60 that’s now underway just west of Osage Hills State Park.

Work got started early last spring along a troublesome stretch that extends from two miles east of the Oklahoma 99 junction to the state park’s entrance (designated State Highway 35), which is approximately midway between Bartlesville and Pawhuska. The $37 million project, which includes replacement of three 1930s-era bridges, will continue through winter of 2016.

The U.S. 60 improvements “have been a long time coming,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley, who recited a short list of the roadway’s shortcomings: horizontal as well as vertical challenges along two narrow lanes with a lack of shoulders “and some of the worst bridges we have in the state — no question.”

The transportation officials spoke at a Friday Financial Forum at Arvest Bank in Bartlesville, with well over 100 persons in attendance.

By the time work is finished on the current highway project, Patterson expects ODOT to already have started on an adjoining project which will finish the west U.S. 60 improvements by connecting with a previously-completed five-mile stretch running to Bartlesville.

In addition to the $96 million worth of projects that are already either completed or underway along Highway 60, another $73 million is to be spent in the corridor under the current eight-year plan — which expires in 2019. Later this year, bids will be taken on the first of two scheduled Highway 60 projects aimed at the hazardous curves between Bartlesville and Nowata, Patterson said.

Patterson’s predecessor as ODOT director, Ridley, currently serves on a voluntary basis as Secretary of Transportation for Gov. Mary Fallin. Prior to retiring two years ago, he was employed by the highway department for 47 years — starting as an equipment operator in 1965. On Friday, Ridley recalled meetings held with area citizens for many years to discuss the needed improvements to Highway 60. He blamed state funding shortages for delaying work on the projects.

“What is being done today directly results from people in the Oklahoma Legislature making roads a priority starting in 2005-06,” Ridley said. “That commitment made a long-range plan possible.

Oklahoma’s “very robust construction program” has brought repairs or replacement of hundreds of its 6,800 bridges, officials said. A few years ago, there were 1,168 state bridges designated as structurally-deficient. At the end of 2014, that number had been reduced to 390, Patterson said.

ODOT officials have also started looking ahead toward the department’s next eight-year plan, which will plot the highway course of the state through 2023.

“I don’t know of any other department that can show you its plan that much in advance,” said Patterson.

According to the transportation director, once a project becomes a part of the state’s comprehensive plan, “we’re focused on seeing it through.” Patterson added that ODOT’s completion rate (for planned projects to be finished on time) has been between 80-90 percent. He added that only highest-quality work is being done under the plan.

“The highway system we’re building today will serve us — and our children and grandchildren — long into the future,” he said.

Directors of each of the state’s departments deserve praise for giving Oklahoma citizens maximum benefits from their tax dollars, according to State Rep. Earl Sears, who currently serves as chairman of House Appropriations and Budget Committee. Sears said careful spending is even more important given a current economic situation in which state government faces a $611 million shortfall. Sears added that the state will meet its budget through various avenues — which probably will include tapping into the state “rainy day,” as well as the unclaimed property and other revolving funds.

Sears also mentioned a recently-passed bill which will address the state tax credits for wind-energy developments. He said Oklahoma officials worked directly with wind-industry leaders to reduce those credits. Additional efforts are being made to establish better rules and regulations over the rapidly-expanding wind industry.