BY JEFF BEZDEK
The Oklahoma City Boulevard project is an extraordinary opportunity to renew a blighted area of our city and reconnect our downtown with the Oklahoma River, the OKC Farmers Market District, Capitol Hill and the recently announced Wheeler District. It is an opportunity to establish planning precedents and prepare these areas for success as our downtown continues to grow and prosper. It is also a decision that will impact the viability of the nearly one billion-dollar investment of MAPS 3 and other taxpayer monies in the area around the former I-40 Crosstown.
So why would we even consider doing this wrong and reestablishing a physical barrier that bifurcates these burgeoning areas?
The fear stems from 20th-century thinking that a downtown without a bypass will suffer horrible congestion. The cultural problem is with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT). As one of the largest state agencies, ODOT is overseen by nonelected officials and operates with unappropriated funding. As a result, the agency functions with limited public and legislative oversight.
I encourage you to submit your opinions for or against the street grid, or curvilinear development, to ODOT and the FWHA through Friday.
Friends for a Better Boulevard (FBB) and citizen support helped change that. As a result, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) required ODOT to undergo a new environmental assessment on the project, which has provided the public and city leaders greater opportunity to offer meaningful input to ensure that this project is built in a “better” way.
It is not FBB’s intent to delay the project. We think that this area of downtown should be reconnected and revitalized as soon as possible. We also believe that there are legitimate concerns on how to handle additional traffic downtown.
The question now is, How will this play out? A large number of people support not building the curvilinear portion of the boulevard and instead reestablishing the street grid. Unfortunately, project engineers do not support that type of design. At issue is the traffic modeling used by ODOT to justify the boulevard. While I think the numbers are inflated and incorrect, there is no way to fight the issue beyond the ongoing public process without incurring significant legal expense.
I encourage you to submit your opinions for or against the street grid, or curvilinear development, to ODOT and the FWHA through Friday. Find the comment form for both at okladot. state.ok.us/meetings/a2014/140507/ commentform.pdf.
FBB has avoided endorsing a specific plan. We have instead pressed for an extended public comment period and proper environmental review. One reason for the surge of activism on this issue has been the absence from ODOT on details regarding traffic control, sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, transit stops, landscaping and improved urban connectivity that provides proper mitigation and prevents the boulevard project from creating another barrier that divides our city.
Mayor Mick Cornett has pledged that he wants the boulevard to be OKC’s “grandest street.” The question is, Is anyone at ODOT listening?
Jeff Bezdek is President of Bezdek + Associates and is cofounder of Friends for a Better Boulevard with Bob Kemper.
Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.