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Bipartisan Group Calls for Money for Road, Bridge Work

Sun April 27, 2008 - West Edition

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) State lawmakers showed bipartisan support Feb. 18 for increasing the amount of state tax dollars dedicated to fixing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Members of the House and Senate appeared with former state transportation director Neal McCaleb to focus public attention on transportation issues and the backlog of road and bridge maintenance in the state, estimated at $10 billion.

“Oklahoma’s roads and bridges are failing,” said Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau. “Everything out here is about priorities. It’s time that the Legislature started looking forward instead of backward.”

“Transportation is important,” said Sen. Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “The neglect that we’ve shown for our roads is certainly catching up with us.”

But finding additional money may be difficult. Preliminary revenue reports indicate lawmakers may have more than $100 million less to spend on roads, bridges and other government services this year than they did last year.

The reports come on the heels of a revenue report showing a decline in sales, income and gross production taxes in January.

Lawmakers plan to increase transportation funding in two ways: removing an economic growth trigger that authorizes additional transportation spending and lifting a cap that limits how much new road and bridge maintenance money can be earmarked.

Legislation passed two years ago authorized $17.5 million a year in new transportation maintenance funds and another $32.5 million a year if economic growth pushed state revenue up at least 3 percent.

Under the measure, new road and bridge maintenance revenue is capped at $200 million.

Now, lawmakers want to eliminate the growth trigger and give the Department of Transportation the full $50 million increase in maintenance funds each year. They also want to increase the cap to $500 million.

Unless the trigger is eliminated, Oklahoma will lose more than $127 million in state and federal transportation dollars for projects outlined in its eight-year construction plan.

“We can’t tolerate that,” McCaleb said.

“It’s catch-up time on roads and bridges,” said Rep. Guy Liebman, R-Oklahoma City, who has filed legislation to abolish the growth trigger for transportation spending.

“There’s too much federal money at stake,” Liebman added. “There’s been a lot of money spent on this eight-year plan. We don’t want to see it go down.”

Lawmakers said they also want to dedicate about $200 million in vehicle tags and fees that is diverted to the state’s general fund to highways. The money is currently spent on education and other programs.

Rep. Mike Thompson, R-Oklahoma City, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said it would take seven or eight years to complete the transfer and it would be replenished with revenue from economic growth.

“You’re not taking money away from anybody,” McCaleb said.

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