Local & Regional
11:26 am
Fri July 31, 2009

Stimulus for Bridges?

Oklahoma City, OK – OKLAHOMA CITY -- Very few of Oklahoma's nearly 7,000 obsolete or structurally deficient bridges are slated for replacement or renovation using federal stimulus money, partly because of a requirement that stimulus projects start quickly, an Associated Press analysis has found.

Of the 6,773 bridges statewide, 63 are slated to be replaced using some of the $465 million Oklahoma received in federal stimulus funds for transportation infrastructure repairs. Only 53 other bridges, only some considered structurally deficient -- will be rehabilitated using stimulus funds.

President Barack Obama used the nation's deteriorating bridges as a selling point to pass the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But bridges haven't turned out to be a big focus of its implementation. The stimulus was designed to boost the economy by employing workers on "shovel ready" infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges. In Oklahoma, most of the stimulus money is going toward projects like highway pavement overlays.

"Stuff that was ready to go -- the plans were ready, the utilities were out of the way," state Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley said. "We wanted to move very quickly. After all, stimulus funds were meant to create jobs as quickly as possible."

The U.S. Department of Transportation has approved about $104 million in stimulus spending on bridge replacement, improvement and construction projects in the state, or 26 percent of the stimulus money it received. But another $300 million, or 74 percent, has been approved for road repaving and widening, according to DOT figures.

Terri Angier, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said federal requirements to spend the money quickly made it difficult to funnel money into extensive bridge repairs that can involve years of planning and construction.

The state received its share of the road and bridge stimulus money on March 2 and federal guidelines required $163 million of the money to be under contract within 120 days.

Ridley said the state obligated $200 million on a variety of projects in just 16 days and led the nation in the percentage of stimulus money spent on road and bridge improvements.

Less than five months after receiving the money, $386 million is already under contract -- 82 percent of the total, Ridley said.

"We moved rather quickly. We were definitely ahead of the curve," Ridley said.

So far, 136 road and bridge projects have been funded with stimulus money.

Improving bridges has been a legislative priority since a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, The Road Information Program, reported in 2002 that Oklahoma had the highest percentage of deficient bridges in the nation, with one-third of the state's bridges 20 feet or longer in need of repair or replacement.

Since then, the state has replaced or rehabilitated hundreds of bridges, including 314 from 2006 through last year, Ridley said. And the state plans to replace or rehabilitate another 110 bridges by the end of 2009, he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.