OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Norman-area lawmakers crowded into the Oklahoma Transportation Commission’s chambers Jan. 5 to applaud the start of a long-awaited widening and improvement project along Interstate 35 through the heart of the state’s third largest city.
The commission approved a $35.3 million project to improve about 5 mi. (8 km) of the highway between Norman and Oklahoma City, the first leg of a $200 million project that will be built in phases over the next six or seven years.
Gary Ridley, director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said the stretch of I-35 that passes through Norman is used by between 70,000 and 80,000 vehicles a day. It was originally designed for between 25,000 and 30,000, transportation officials said.
“It’s way over capacity,’’ Ridley said. “It’s become increasingly more of a problem.’’
The current four-lane highway will be expanded to at least six lanes and as many as eight lanes in some areas, Ridley said. All four lanes of the existing roadway will remain open during the construction project, scheduled for completion in the spring of 2010.
Lawmakers who represent the Norman area praised the commission’s action.
“The citizens of Norman are excited about this,’’ said Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman. “It’s history making, I think, for the state.’’
Rep. Bill Nations, D-Norman, a former Norman mayor, said he has been working with state transportation officials to improve the roadway since he first became involved in municipal politics 22 years ago.
“We’ve needed it for a long time. We’re almost desperate in our need,’’ Nations said.
Rep. Guy Liebmann, R-Oklahoma City, said he supports road and bridge improvements but warned that lawmakers will have less revenue to distribute this year than they did a year earlier.
Last year, Liebmann helped spearhead a $475 million bond package, including $300 million for road and bridge improvements, that Liebmann said would protect the state’s eight-year transportation construction plan and prevent projects from being postponed.
“Good roads lead to economic development,’’ said Liebmann, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee for General Government and Transportation. “I know we’re way behind.’’
State financial officials have said a combination of declining energy prices and the nation’s slowing economy are to blame for Oklahoma’s revenue downturn.
On a related subject, Ridley said engineers and technicians are putting the finishing touches on plans for dozens of road and bridge construction projects that could be funded with part of a national economic stimulus package planned by President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20. Obama’s aides have said the plan could cost as much as $775 billion.
Ridley said he hopes to have as many as 130 projects with a construction cost as high as $900 million ready to receive bids once the package is approved by Congress.
“These are all projects in the eight-year plan that are critical projects,’’ Ridley said. “We’d be somewhat irresponsible if we weren’t prepared.’’
The package is designed to improve the nation’s infrastructure and create jobs and would give a substantial boost to Oklahoma’s sagging construction industry, Ridley said.
“The construction industry has felt the downturn in the economy,’’ he said. “There’s going to be a substantial increase in jobs.’’
However, if the package is delayed or rejected, Ridley said the state could run out of federal dollars for transportation projects by March 6.