Gilcrease extension still much needed
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, September 23, 2012
9/23/12 at 3:08 AM
Should Tulsans pony up more money to keep the Gilcrease Expressway extension inching along? There are plenty of reasons to keep sprinkling money on the project, but some Tulsa leaders haven't been keen to send more money its way.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett has proposed including $10 million in the evolving Vision2 package, a proposed extension of the countywide Vision 2025 sales tax, for further work on the Gilcrease.
If finally completed, the Gilcrease extension would close the outer loop around the city on the northwest and west sides of town.
It's been conventional transportation wisdom for decades (and the experience of the many cities that have completed their loops) that these urban loops provide various benefits, including efficient traffic flow, economic development potential, improved public safety, relief of capacity and congestion problems, and improved access throughout the city.
But despite all those rationales, a few city councilors have balked at the spending. City Council Chairman G. T. Bynum has said he doesn't "see encouraging sprawl and building highways that connect fields to fields as being a good, urgent use of taxpayer dollars."
Extending the Gilcrease, Councilor Blake Ewing echoed, "is the very definition of sprawl-oriented development."
Bynum also has said the "only people I hear clamoring for it are from the Mayor's Office and INCOG, simply because it's been in the plans for decades."
And Ewing was similarly dismissive, arguing it's an "old and easily disproven hypothesis" that highways spawn economic development.
I admit up front that my interest in the Gilcrease extension isn't purely professional. My husband and I live on 20 acres located near the Gilcrease extension corridor. Though it's a possibility we could benefit financially from the extension (if we live that long), I personally would much rather see this beautiful, idyllic part of town remain that way.
But my civic-minded side, tutored by nearly four decades of covering such issues, reminds me that major transportation networks are good for cities, and completion of our outer loop is a much-needed element.
So I just can't let some of the councilors' comments go unanswered.
The very definition of sprawl? Councilors, we're talking about areas that are within the Tulsa city limits. Some of the alignment is within a few miles of downtown! In fact, the entire alignment is closer in than the Mingo Valley Expressway and Creek Turnpike. My drive to work downtown is only about six miles. Hardly the very definition of sprawl. You guys really need to get out more.
The only people clamoring for it are the mayor's office and local planners? I'd remind you, Councilor Bynum, that many business and civic leaders have been clamoring for completion of the Gilcrease for many years, including the regional OneVoice coalition of business leaders and chambers of commerce, which "strongly encourages" building the extension "through any funding mechanism available in order to expedite this long overdue transportation system."
As to Ewing's assertion that it's an "old and easily disproven hypothesis" that highways spawn economic development: It's more easily proven - just look around! Considerable research shows that transportation improvements can contribute to economic development, as well as other desirable outcomes, but these results can vary depending on a complex set of variables. And remember, the northwest area of town is the only region where any large-scale development can occur. If we build it, will they come? It's highly likely. But we know this for sure: They won't come if we don't build it.
Don't give up
Bynum has observed that federal funding for the project "has trickled in slowly, but no one else has been willing to commit real resources to get this done," adding, "Why is that? Why is the Oklahoma Department of Transportation not willing to do it? Why is the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority not willing to do it? What does that say about the viability of the project?"
It's not quite accurate to say that ODOT hasn't been willing to do the project. While it's true the OTA has concluded the project isn't feasible as a toll road, ODOT has continued to plug away, and past city administrations have done their part to keep the project alive.
In fact, much of the Gilcrease project has been completed or soon will be. In all, more than 12 miles of the Gilcrease have been completed or are nearing completion, leaving less than seven miles remaining to be built - plus a very expensive bridge over the Arkansas River, which is one of the sticking points with skeptics. Bartlett hopes to use Vision2 funding to leverage other money sources to address the bridge issue.
Bynum questions whether the Gilcrease project is "a good, urgent use of taxpayer dollars." There are pros and cons to including it in the Vision2 package.
And there is this: If the city only responds to "urgent" uses of tax dollars, it will never be any more or any better than it is today.
The city should continue, as it has for many years, to show support (including funding) for advancing the Gilcrease project. If city leaders throw up their hands and abandon the project, how can we expect anyone else to consider it a high priority? The message that would be sent if this council and future leaders wash their hands of the project would be that we don't care if it gets done, and its future very likely could be doomed.
Late last week, councilors had tentatively agreed to include $5 million in the Vision2 package for the Gilcrease. That's a good sign. It shows they recognize that the Gilcrease extension is among Tulsa's top priorities. Let's hope it's a sign it will stay that way.
Original Print Headline: Highway Aid
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
Construction work continues on the latest leg of the Gilcrease Expressway west of the Tisdale Expressway, south of 36th Street North in Tulsa. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World file