Work on the estimated $75 million boulevard " set to run between Oklahoma Avenue on the east and Walker Avenue on the west " is still at least three years away, but city officials want its construction to coincide with the planned demolition of the Interstate 40 Crosstown bridge in 2013, which the boulevard will replace at ground level. Like an enormous piece of Swiss cheese, the I-40 Crosstown bridge, constructed in 1965, is littered with holes and rapidly aging.
The stretch of interstate, from Interstate 235 on the east to May Avenue on the west, is being moved, including the section of bridge that hugs the south side of downtown. That portion is being relocated five blocks to the south into an area city officials have dubbed "Core to Shore." The new section of highway is a federally funded project.
By all accounts, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is paying for construction of the boulevard to replace the current route of I-40, but in its latest funding plan, there is no mention of that new stretch of pavement.
Gary Ridley, director of ODOT, acknowledged that while his agency remains committed to funding the boulevard, it has not yet been programmed into ODOT's plan.
"It is not in the eight-year construction plan because there is not funding available," Ridley said.
Two projects that are in ODOT's funding plan to advance the boulevard include the $17 million grade, drain, bridge and surface for the Reno Avenue, Lincoln/Byers connection over I-40 near Bricktown, and the estimated $8.72 million demolition of the Crosstown bridge.
Ridley is not sure when the funding for the boulevard will show up on ODOT's books.
"Hopefully, the reconnection of downtown OKC can be included in ODOT's program as we get closer to the deconstruction project in 2013," he said. "However, a change in funding levels can affect negatively or positively any of ODOT's projects."
BOULEVARD RUNS THROUGH IT
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said he isn't worried about the funding, or current lack thereof, or the assessment by a national urban planner that criticized preliminary drawings for the boulevard that were laid out in 2007 by the Core to Shore steering committee.
He said while ODOT has not yet funded the boulevard, everyone from City Hall to the governor's office is on the same page, and he does not expect any delays that will keep it from being finished in 2014.
Oklahoma City Planning Director Russell Claus said he will rest easier and know the boulevard is indeed going to be built when the city has the money in hand from ODOT.
"Any situation where the money is not actually there yet, you have to have some concern," Claus said. "At the same time, per their agreement on this project, ODOT is obligated to source the funding for that project."
Paul Sund, communications director for Gov. Brad Henry, said one way or another, the funding will arrive and the boulevard will be built on schedule.
"Gov. Henry is absolutely committed not just to finishing the Crosstown on schedule, but he's committed to constructing a boulevard as well," Sund said.
Federal stimulus dollars will also play a role in making sure the boulevard is completed by funding projects already in the pipeline and getting them off ODOT's books, Sund said.
Oklahoma received $2.6 billion earlier this year from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Of that amount, $542.9 million was dedicated to transportation.
"It allowed ODOT to address some existing projects across the state and move those out of the way off the eight-year program," Sund said. "And once you move those off the front end, you make room at the back end."
While the boulevard is not in ODOT's Construction Work Plan report, which covers fiscal year 2010 through fiscal year 2017, Sund said it is a good sign that the demolition of the existing Crosstown bridge and the Lincoln/Byers connection are in the budget.
'A HIGHWAY WITH TREES'
The design of the boulevard has also been a point of contention.
In the final Core to Shore report, conceptual drawings of the proposed boulevard showed a lively corridor bordered by new retail activity.
A report on just how friendly downtown Oklahoma City is to pedestrians was completed for the city by urban planning consultant Jeff Speck, principal with Speck & Associates in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. It called the boulevard, as seen in the Core to Shore drawings, "a highway with trees."
Speck reported that with potentially six lanes of traffic, it would be nearly impossible for pedestrians to traverse the boulevard safely. He did not criticize the overall vision for the boulevard, but proposed a model with fewer lanes that was much friendlier to pedestrians.
Cornett said Speck's report on the boulevard was no surprise, and added that nothing in the conceptual drawings is set in stone when it comes to plans for the boulevard.
"The boulevard has not been engineered or designed," he said. "Those are in no way final."
Claus said there were some good points in the conceptual drawings for the boulevard, and, likewise, some areas that need improvement. He pointed to $15 million from the 2007 general obligation bond designated for the boulevard that can help planners make the boulevard functional and truly grand. Those funds will pay for the enhancements after ODOT paves the road to create the type of product envisioned by the Core to Shore committee.
"We wanted to make sure that we had the quality of street that was proposed in the Core to Shore plan," he said.
Within the next year, Claus expects a planning team will form to design the look and feel of the boulevard led by public works with contributions from engineers, designers and the planning department.
COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
The boulevard, when completed, will also bump up against the north side of a planned new convention center and a 70-acre park, if those projects are approved in the December MAPS 3 vote.
With all eyes on the $777 million MAPS vote, Cornett and other city leaders are focused on how those proposed public improvements will complement the new route for I-40 and spur development in the Core to Shore area that runs from the central business district south to the Oklahoma River, with the boulevard as a key element.
"Keep in mind the park is the city's response to the I-40 relocation," Cornett said. "The park will complete the puzzle."
Now, Cornett is counting on city voters to approve MAPS and for ODOT to hold up its end on the boulevard.
Sund said once the Crosstown comes down, the governor's office is committed to seeing the boulevard come to fruition.
"Everyone is on board after that time to make sure the boulevard construction gets into the ODOT program and we finish the project," he said. "It is a high priority for Gov. Henry."
Henry's second and final gubernatorial term ends in January 2011. "Kelley Chambers