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More Questions than Answers on the Downtown Boulevard

I spent more than an hour tonight trying to understand the four downtown boulevard design options presented by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation at an Open House held in the Cox Convention Center.
I thought about doing this as a story for the paper. But I seriously don’t know what I would write. Well, yes, I do. I’d start it with “I don’t get it.”
And when I say “I don’t get it,” I mean there’s a lot I don’t get.
Let’s start off with what we do know. First, it was never ODOT’s intention to have this meeting, or have cause to have this meeting. I can still remember interviewing Gary Evans, then the state highway deputy director, when this design debate began to gain momentum in the summer of 2012.
At the time, I was repeatedly told “promises” were made to have the boulevard done and open in 2014. I was told ODOT would consider looking at a design reconsideration only if instructed by City Manager Jim Couch or City Engineer Eric Wenger – both engineers themselves.
But Oklahoma City residents got pretty loud about how much they hated the idea of essentially rebuilding the boulevard as the same elevated bypass that had just been torn down. The city council didn’t like the design either. And the feds? They were watching, they were listening. And I’ve been told they reminded the ODOT engineers that they’re not unaccountable on this project.
Also remember the following: during that interview, Evans estimated that the boulevard, when it opens, will carry 58,825 vehicles a day in and out of downtown. That figure tops one of the busiest stretches of the six-lane Northwest Expressway between Meridian and MacArthur, which carried 53,769 cars daily in 2011.
Bob Kemper, one of the leading voices on countering the ODOT engineers, charged the cost estimates and traffic counts were exaggerated to undermine public and political support for altering the current bridge design.
“Based on ODOT’s own traffic count system, (the 94,000 vehicles a day) is the same number of vehicles per day as the old I-40 crosstown was carrying in 2009,” Kemper said at the time. “Either their numbers are wrong or Oklahoma City is getting two crosstown expressways.”
Evans said the traffic estimates represent standard highway design formulas.
“Anytime we build a roadway, it’s expected to have a life 20 to 30 years in the future,” he said.
Now why am I revisiting this comment? Why don’t I just cut to the chase on what I saw tonight?
Be patient.
Before we even delve into these designs, let me ask what I asked the ODOT engineers tonight: what if the world changed over the past two years? What if all that you learned, all that you believe firmly about the world being round or flat is now wrong?
Demographics and statistics show that starting about a decade ago, the number of miles driven — both over all and per capita — began to drop. Don’t believe me? Read this story from the New York Times. Studies also show these Millennials also are buying less cars and are more interested in public transit. They want bikes – and bike lanes. They want more emphasis on pedestrian transportation.
The world is changing. But the engineers, from what I’ve seen, are still designing roads and forecasting traffic decades into the future assuming that nothing has really changed in driving and traffic patterns over the past 30 years.
So when I ask the ODOT engineers whether they’ve contemplated in their designs that the world has changed on them, they have no answer. They had no answer. It’s as if my question is nonsense, when the latest numbers show otherwise.
I don’t get it.
Here’s something else I don’t get: how did a six-lane option get back into the mix? I mean, seriously, how did this happen? They respond to my question on this with using it as a “baseline,” but as I recall that baseline was already destroyed even before this design debate popped up. The city didn’t want it to be six lanes, and the folks at ODOT as of two years ago had eliminated that option from all the plans presented the summer of 2012.
So how in the world does six lanes re-enter the discussion? And why?
I don’t get it.
I’m going to buy myself a new car. Options include getting a loan, saving up money or robbing a bank. Yes, I said robbing a bank is an option. I’ve added it into consideration as a “baseline.”
Yeah, it doesn’t make sense. At least not to me.
But hey, I’m not an engineer. I’m sure that’s what they’re thinking as they have to respond questions from myself and others. What do we know?
Good question. I don’t know everything. But I know after extensive questioning, I’m still confused.
I don’t get it.
I know that if the rules of the past still applied today, the 16th Street Plaza District would not have won the Mayor’s development award today. The street is terrible for traffic, and it is totally inadequate for parking. There’s no way a district like that could provide restaurants and retailers with the sort of parking and traffic flow they would need for a stable successful business.
But wait… it’s working. The Plaza District is thriving. And it is being frequented by a lot of Millenials who are leaving their cars at home, or don’t even own a car.
The world is changing. But I got no hint from ODOT engineers that this is actually a possibility.
I don’t get it.
There are things being said by those in opposition to ODOT engineers, especially those pushing for restoration of the old street grid instead of building a boulevard that confuse me as well.
Explain to me why it’s bad to create a good boulevard coming into downtown. Explain to me why it’s more preferable to have traffic moving past the City Rescue Mission on a street that dead-ends next to the new John W. Rex Elementary. Explain to me how disconnected series of streets (the grid can’t be truly restored due to the Myriad Gardens and other super block developments) won’t confuse drivers and pedestrians alike.
But I’m not a planner. I don’t know everything there is to know about planning. But I still don’t get how this is a great alternative.
When one looks at the four options presented tonight by ODOT, and then one looks at their “scoring,” it’s clear they’re leaning toward Option C, shown above. Confession time: I’m not impressed by scoring. I’ve seen it manipulated and corrupted way too many times, whether it involves the hiring of consultants or site selection for the convention center.
GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out. Maybe what went into this scoring was not garbage. Quite honestly, I don’t know, and based on experience I’m simply find it very hard to believe anything I’m told about whether it’s legit. It’s all subjective and set by those who usually have a preference on the outcome the scoring is supposed to help determine.
And have no doubt, these engineers prefer an option that keeps traffic moving. That doesn’t make them bad or evil. But it doesn’t mean they’re really in tune with the changing world around them either.
So we have option C. In many ways it resembles the compromise offered two years ago. It combines Classen and Western under one bridge to eliminate much of the previously designed elevated road. But they’re still pushing for a limited access bypass for the area south of Film Row. They’re not aware of the sudden interest by developers for the area spurred by the decision by 21C Museum Hotels to redevelop the nearby Fred Jones assembly plant at 900 W Main. They’re not aware of the increased interest in the Farmers Market area either.
The road is at grade east of Reno Avenue. The road will have a sidewalk between Reno Avenue (by the McDonalds) and Bricktown. But highway style ramps are designed instead of intersections at Lee Avenue – a potentially key connection between Film row and the area south of Film Row.
The state engineers clearly don’t want to change Lee into an intersection. Ditto for where the boulevard crosses Shartel Avenue. Even if the whole city council dictated the intersections be added, ODOT engineers tonight told me that would not be the deciding factor.
I’m reminded again about the importance of traffic flow.
I don’t get it.
And here’s why: this boulevard won’t be owned or controlled by ODOT once it is built. It will be turned over to the city. And at that point the city will be free to do anything they want with it. Heck, they could even turn it into a bike trail. ODOT engineers would have no say in the matter. And Couch answers to the city council.
The city council will ultimately be able to get its way on this road. So why insist on a road design the city council won’t want? That could be the question ahead. Or maybe not. Two council members, Meg Salyer and Ed Shadid, showed up for the open house. Neither seemed impressed with what they saw. Shadid was unhappy with the timing and location chosen by ODOT for the open house, and wondered why a full presentation that allowed for citizen questioning of the engineers wasn’t considered. Don’t be surprised if such a meeting is requested. ODOT is moving ahead with a plan to give citizens 30 days to submit their comments and questions online. And in 60 days, in the ODOT view of the world, they will announce which design they, and not the city, will choose, for a road that will be owned and maintained by the city.
I don’t get it.
So what do I know?
I know this continued effort by ODOT engineers to design the boulevard as a freeway bypass for the stretch west of Walker Avenue is not popular with my readers. I know that when the design was essentially criticized by one of the speakers at the Mayor’s Development Roundtable this morning, a loud cheer arose from the crowd of about 500 of the city’s most influential civic leaders, business owners, developers, architects and planners. I know that every outside expert not hired by either the city or ODOT has been critical of the idea of creating a new freeway or bypass just a couple blocks north of the new I-40 regardless of what sort of limited access points the interstate has to downtown.
I know the world is changing. I know that the assumptions built into traffic modeling are based on the world we knew in the past before the renewed interest in public transit, the end of the American love affair with cars, and of course, $4 a gallon gasoline.
But the rest of this? I don’t get it.

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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›