Sept. 12’s election will include propositions for improvements to infrastructure

A pothole and road wear along N. Classen Boulevard near NW 16th Street. An Oklahoma City Council plan to address city street conditions will require voter approval in September. (Garett Fisbeck)

A pothole and road wear along N. Classen Boulevard near NW 16th Street. An Oklahoma City Council plan to address city street conditions will require voter approval in September. (Garett Fisbeck)

Oklahoma City residents will be asked to vote on a bond referendum in September that would authorize a $967.4 million plan to invest in the city streets, bridges, libraries, police and fire facilities, parks, transit and more.

Alongside the 10-year general obligation bond issue, which will appear as 13 ballot propositions, are two sales tax proposals. Of those two, voters will be asked to approve a temporary, 27-month continuation of the expiring 1-cent MAPS tax, which would raise $240 million for additional road repairs and street infrastructure projects. In the second tax proposal, voters will be asked to weigh a quarter-cent permanent sales tax to contribute to the city operations fund with an emphasis on benefiting public safety positions.

The three ballot proposals include the largest proposed bond program in the city’s history and carry the potential to make a resounding impact on the future of OKC, particularly in street maintenance. If approved, the city would invest $730.5 million into its street system over the next decade.

Concern for streets

For the past decade, the city has steadily pumped millions of dollars into road projects though the $835.5 million bond program approved by voters in 2007. The investment has paid off, from new lane miles to resurfaced streets and improvement of the city’s pavement condition index (PCI), a qualitative measure for road surface quality. The city’s current PCI is 65, which is higher than 2011’s score of 60. A 100 is a rating given to a new road, and a rating of zero indicates it is undrivable.

Despite progress improving road conditions, residents repeatedly rank street maintenance as a top priority, according to the city’s annual resident survey.

To design a 2017 General Obligation Bond program, a follow-up to the 2007 program, the council looked for citizen input. While questions at neighborhood meetings and council-hosted bond workshops centered on a variety of infrastructure needs, streets continued to dominate the conversation. Through those meetings and workshops, but also through online and paper surveys, more than 6,400 people offered input on the upcoming bond.

“The public is answering the same way they do when asked questions in the citizens’ survey,” planning director Aubrey McDermid told the council during an April workshop to plan the bond program.

At that workshop, city staff presented the council with a list of 1,700 potential infrastructure projects. More than 500 of them were connected to the city’s streets. City leaders acknowledged they faced tough decisions in determining the final list.

The council’s proposed bond program, unveiled in June, calls for investing $490.5 million into the city’s street system. Under Proposition 1, bond funds would benefit more than 230 street projects, such as resurfacing and widening. All projects are listed in a 24-page resolution the council unanimously approved on June 20.

Still in development

Public Works director Eric Wenger said his office has taken a number of phone calls from residents asking about street projects not included in the proposed bond program. Wenger, who has worked for the city since 1994, assures each caller that the project is not forgotten. Projects proposed for the bond remain a possibility for the future and the Community and Neighborhoods Enhancement Program, the continuation of the MAPS program.

“The council recognizes streets as a top priority for Oklahoma City residents based on citizens’ surveys. The quality-of-life things, like streetscapes, sidewalks, trails and bike lanes, are also important,” Wenger said as he discussed the Community and Neighborhood Enhancement Program. “The actual projects themselves have not yet been determined, and that is one of the things being discussed.”

As the council eyed its upcoming bond program, attention was also given to the future of MAPS, which is set to expire at the end of the year. Under Mayor Mick Cornett’s direction, city staff began to design a program operating under a temporary tax extension to further benefit the city’s street system as well as sidewalks, streetscapes and trails and bike infrastructure.

If approved by voters, a 27-month extension of the 1-cent sales tax would raise $240 million to “enhance and extend multiple forms of transportation and improve the quality of neighborhoods across Oklahoma City,” according to a city document.

Wenger said responsibility falls on the council to determine either the list of projects to be funded with the sales tax or decide the process for selecting those projects. He said it’s possible projects listed in the preliminary list of bond projects could be selected as MAPS sales tax projects.

“It is a living document where these projects are being reprioritized,” Wenger said. “As resources are available and new funding is identified, the project could come into focus. It could be a possibility with the sales tax, a future grant program or other money that might be identified.”

Questions have been raised about forming a citizen oversight board as part of the Community and Neighborhood Enhancement Program. The city has appointed community members to serve on MAPS oversight boards since MAPS won voter approval in 1993. Wenger said that is part of the current discussion at city hall, too.

Council direction

All eight council members and the mayor back the bond proposal; however, Councilmen Ed Shadid and James Greiner disapprove of plans to extend the MAPS tax.

Shadid, who represents Ward 2, believes a portion of the MAPS tax should be redirected to help fund public schools, which are in dire need of financial support. Ward 1’s Greiner, who supports further investment into the city’s street system, supported a previous plan to extend three-quarters of the 1-cent MAPS tax for 27 months.

Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee, who authored the resolution backing the 1-cent MAPS tax extension, contends both the bond and the sales tax proposals are necessary to meet citizens’ needs.

“The citizens of Ward 3 have been very vehement and very consistent in their desire … to improve the road conditions in Ward 3,” he said. “Projects on the GO Bond program go a long way towards relieving that, but they don’t go far enough because of the need. By approving this plan, there will be additional monies available in the relatively short term to expand some more roads and to deal with that situation.”

Print headline: Course dues; Oklahoma City voters could deliver a $730.5 million investment for roads through a combination of proposed sales and property taxes.

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