Last year, 735 people died in traffic accidents in Oklahoma, and of those, 471 were on the state highway system. That averages to two people killed a day and more than one person killed per day on the state system.
That's why David Streb, assistant director preconstruction for Oklahoma Department of Transportation, is scared of Oklahoma's highways and bridges.
"The Webbers Falls incident (interstate bridge collapse) was a terrible disaster for the state, and the largest disaster that the DOT had to face," he said.
"One of the things that came up were the 14 people who lost their lives in that tragedy. We heard a lot about their lives, and there was a lot of exposure about them.
"One thing you don't hear, though, is that 14 people die every single week on our highways," said Streb. "You don't hear about that, it's almost become part of our daily lives. But are you complacent with the fact that we lose 14 people a week?"
Streb, along with Casey Shell, division engineer for ODOT, said those numbers tie into the condition of Oklahoma's highway system, which suffers as among the worst in the nation.
"It's horrible. We're embarrassed by our highways, and we're scared of them too," said Shell. "Unless something is done, it's going to get worse."
That something is money, both ODOT spokespersons said. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is attempting to inform the public about the state of the highways and bridges in Oklahoma to an attempt to get citizens to speak out.
Between interstate, US and state highways, there are 12,266 miles of highways on the state system. More than 25 percent, or 3,197 miles of that, are rated inadequate or critical.
With current funding, the condition of the roadways will continue to decline, say ODOT officials.
Besides being inadequate, said Streb, Oklahoma's roads are also dangerous. Of all accidents, 56 percent occur on inadequate roads and those roads make up more than 25 percent of the state mileage. They also account for 56 percent of the accidents.
"Talking about the surface conditions of roads, one-third of all the miles are in poor condition and need to be resurfaced now," said Streb. "Twenty-five percent are inadequate, which means there is too much traffic, no shoulder, lack of passing opportunities and low visibility."
Then there are the bridges.
On the state highways system, 6,728 bridges exist, said Streb. Of those, 1,116 are structurally deficient and 481 are functionally obsolete.
Of those, 174 have restricted load limits, and one was even built in 1896.
"Two hundred bridges are over 80 years old," said Streb. "We lead the nation in structurally deficient bridges. Our bridges are among the worst in the nation."
On top of all these problems, the state of Oklahoma expects major growth in traffic. Between 1995 and 2002, daily vehicle miles traveled grew by 12 million, from 61.1 million to 73.2 million.
Within the next 20 years, the state expects an increase of 33 percent with a 70 percent increase in truck traffic.
"On average, one truck causes as much damage to a stretch of roadway as 10,000 cars do," Streb added.
WHAT ODOT NEEDS
Like every other state agency, ODOT has not received all the funding it would like. It's state allocations and budget have stayed flat since the 1980s, and all federal highway money can only go to new construction as opposed to maintenance.
"We need the public's help. We need to get the word out and do something about this," said Shell. "It's horrible. We're embarrassed. We do the best we can with the money we have, but it's not enough."
The ODOT budget has remained the same since 1984; however, today, the department has 50 to 60 percent less buying power due to inflation.
Some ideas to increase revenue for the ODOT system include raising gasoline and diesel taxes. At the beginning of 2003, Oklahoma's gasoline tax, at 17 cents per gallon, tied with Missouri and New Mexico as the lowest in the region. The national average is just under 20 cents per gallon for both gas and diesel tax.
House Bill 1385, never emerged from a conference committee last legislative session, would have raised the diesel and gas tax and was expected to generate $140 million to $150 million.
"That would have taken care of our problem," said Shell. "That would have turned us around and put us in a place to do needed maintenance and repairs."
The bill stalled before it had a chance.
"A penny tax on gas would have cost the consumer 50 cents a month, or $6 a year, on a car getting 20 miles to the gallon and traveling 20,000 miles a year," said Streb. "A penny gas tax would have raised $18.3 million. HB 1385 asked for 5 cents per gallon and 8 cents for diesel."
Oklahoma still gets federal money, but that money can only be used for new projects and not maintenance.
"All of Casey's budget for repairs and maintenance are state funds. We need more funds," said Streb. "We also have a smaller staff now. We are in dire straits with things we can fix if we had the money."
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is hoping the citizens will become aware of the conditions of the highways and demand something be done.
"We need a public outcry," said Streb. "If we only had an additional $50 million a year for the bridge program, we could make a difference. Our bridges scare me."