Tim Gatz, Oklahoma secretary of transportation, executive director of Oklahoma Department of Transportation and executive director of Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, gave an update on infrastructure work in the state during Enid Regional Development Alliance’s annual member luncheon on Thursday, April 13, 2023, at Oakwood Country Club.

Gatz has worked for ODOT since 1990, beginning as a drafting technician before working his way up the ladder, becoming secretary of transportation and executive director of ODOT in 2019 after being appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Gatz said the jurisdiction ODOT has over Oklahoma’s roadways is only for state-numbered routes and U.S.-numbered routes, as city and county roads are maintained by their respective local government officials. He said ODOT takes a three-pronged approach to take care of the state’s highway system.

He said the first prong is those with boots on the ground, or those around the state performing routine maintenance or mowing, as well as the response during inclement weather, with crews working day and night to make sure the highways are in as good of condition as possible.

The second part of the approach is called an asset preservation program, which is maintenance done on highways and bridges to extend the life of the infrastructure in place.

“It’s a little more than routine maintenance, but it’s not a big major reconstruction project,” Gatz said. “We are always trying to get the right treatment on the right infrastructure at the right time to make sure that it gives us everything that it’s supposed to.”

The third prong of the approach is the eight-year construction work plan, which was first developed in 2002 to identify projects that need improvements. ODOT’s eight engineers identify the projects from input from various stakeholders, as well as approval from Oklahoma Transportation Commission. It is updated each year based on conservative funding forecasts and guides ODOT’s development strategies, focusing on needed improvements for the state’s interstates, U.S. and state highways and bridges.

Gatz said his predecessor, Gary Ridley, who was secretary of transportation 2009-17, had a hand in getting the eight-year plan developed due to Oklahoma’s structurally deficient bridges.

“Our infrastructure today is better today than it’s ever been in my career, in 33 years, better than it’s ever been,” Gatz said. “It’s not as good as we’d like it to be, you’re always going to chase that. Back in 2004-05, Oklahoma had the dubious honor of being 49th in the country in bridge infrastructure. Almost 20% of all of the highway bridges that we have were structurally deficient. We had 137 of those bridges that couldn’t carry a legally loaded truck, some of them couldn’t carry a legally loaded school bus.”

With a focus on improving the state’s bridge infrastructure, Oklahoma is now No. 5 in the country, Gatz said. There are 47 structurally deficient bridges out of 6,800 on the state highway system, Gatz said, much lower than the 1,200 deficient bridges in 2004-05. The state is 24th in the nation for the quality of the pavement infrastructure, another focus that ODOT is working on, he said.

The No. 1 focus for ODOT is safety, and Gatz said a major focus is adding safety shoulders to many of the state’s two-lane highways. He said those highways are where the most severe accidents occur, including the highest fatality rate of the state’s road system. He said adding a 4-foot shoulder, or more ideally a 6-8-foot shoulder, would make a huge difference. He said 5,300 miles of highway in Oklahoma are two-lane roads, and those roads support about 72% of all vehicle traffic in the state. There are 1,100 miles of two-lane highways that have been designated to receive safety shoulders.

Gatz also mentioned the state is investing in improvements to the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System on the Arkansas River, with the Port of Catoosa being the furthest inland port in the country. He said the system is currently 9 feet deep, and that it will be dredged and made to be 12 feet deep. Gatz suggested this could be a major boon for the state, as well as the country.

“That changes the whole context of the barge as you come up and down that river, a bigger bulk barge can go, and maybe, containerized crate,” he said. “If you could bring that product into the central U.S. and ship from inside out, that may be a better model for our future, and we’re going to talk about that a lot in the context of economic development.”

Article by: Tanner Holubar Enid News & Eagle 4.16.23