House Rural Democrats Decry Possible Move to Raid County Bridge Fund to Plug Budget HoleSat, 09 May 2015 18:34:55 CDT
Rural House Democrats urge their rural Republican colleagues to resist any attempt to siphon revenue from a popular county road/bridge fund to help plug a gaping hole in the state budget.
Negotiating behind closed doors, Republican House and Senate budget writers are debating how much money to withdraw from the state’s “rainy day” fund and how much to divert from state agency savings accounts in order to make up a $611 million state revenue shortfall.
Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Clark Jolley acknowledged last week that the County Improvements to Roads and Bridges (CIRB) fund is among the potential revenue sources “likely to be targeted.”
The CIRB currently has $254 million, ledgers reflect.
“Protecting rural roads and bridges shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” said Rep. Steve Kouplen, House Democratic Caucus chairman-elect. “But with reliable sources indicating the GOP plans to take tens of millions of dollars from the CIRB in order to balance the state budget, rural Republican legislators need to act swiftly and join us in a bipartisan bid to stop this planned raid dead in its tracks.”
Oklahoma is traversed with 83,552 miles of county roads that are bisected by 13,659 county bridges and 1,870 railroad crossings. Research indicates 70% of those road miles are unpaved and 30% have been surfaced. In addition, the state Transportation Department has identified 3,236 of those bridges (almost 24% of them) as substandard. An estimated 13.6 million vehicle miles are driven each day on Oklahoma’s county road network, officials report.
“Because of the CIRB, counties have repaired or replaced hundreds of bridges and have been able to leverage millions of dollars of federal funds,” said Rep. David Perryman, a member of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on General Government. “Redirecting CIRB funds will literally make the path to safer rural roads and bridges ‘impassable’,” the Chickasha Democrat said.
In Fiscal Year 2014, officials reported, 96 county bridges were repaired or replaced at a cost of approximately $61 million, and 42 county roads were upgraded at a total awarded construction cost of more than $80 million. Records show $116 million in CIRB funds were coupled with $25 million in federal funds plus $1.6 million from municipal, state and tribal sources to finance those 148 projects last year.
The CIRB fund is “essential for rural Oklahoma,” said Kouplen, a Beggs Democrat who is a member of the House Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.
“We rely on that money,” LeFlore County District 3 Commissioner Ceb Scott said Friday. “That’s our lifeline.”
“Last year the GOP robbed $10 million from the counties’ emergency road fund,” noted Rep. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester. “This madness has to stop!”
“For the last two budget cycles we’ve robbed Peter to pay Paul,” said D-Beggs. “We can’t keep cutting revenues and bragging about the economy, but then wring our hands when there’s a shortfall.”
“My entire service as a state legislator has been dedicated to two things: better infrastructure in rural Oklahoma and protecting funding for education in rural Oklahoma,” said Rep. James Lockhart, a member of the House Committee on Transportation. “The attempt this year to rob the CIRB in order to balance a budget that has been slashed in order to benefit special interest groups is just wrong,” the Heavener Democrat said.
Commissioner Scott said he has more than 500 miles of county roads and more than 140 bridges – some of which were constructed by the WPA (established 1935, dissolved 1943) when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president – in his district in southern LeFlore County. The CIRB fund is critical to maintenance of his transportation network, he said.
As just one example, when the 78-year-old S.H. 83 bridge across the Kansas City Southern railroad tracks southeast of Poteau was closed for emergency repairs between March 27 and April 29, some of the vehicles diverted onto county roads in Scott’s district. “That traffic had to go somewhere, and my roads just happened to be it,” he said.
Consequently, a formerly chip-and-seal road designed to accommodate light, local traffic disintegrated under the wheels of much heavier vehicles. One truck tipped over “because the shoulder couldn’t support it,” Scott recalled. The road is “back to dirt,” he sighed. “We can’t afford to resurface it.”
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