Copies of an email from Eric Wenger, the city’s public works director, began popping up on OKC Talk in response to inquiries about the boulevard project. I’ll admit, I gave only a scant read of the email and first thought, meh, that’s about right. But then I looked at it again this weekend. Keep in mind, Eric Wenger is a hard-working guy. But he’s also a city employee who more than once instructed MAPS 3 committees that they had no flexibility with the proposed $30 million purchase of an OG&E substation or the proposed 2014 completion of the Core to Shore park due to “city council instructions.” It was after I dug into when and where such instructions were given that the details got a bit fuzzy, and then the council itself insisted it gave no such instructions.
So there’s that.
Now we have the email below, provided to me by multiple folks who say it was sent to them by Wenger in response to their inquiries about the boulevard. Now, please note what is plain simple fact: as proposed and being pushed by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and supported by the city’s engineers, the boulevard is being designed so that seven blocks will be at-grade, five blocks will be elevated, and a few more blocks on the eastern half in Bricktown will be either sub-grade (under the BNSF tracks) or elevated again as the road reconnects with I-40 east of downtown.
If ODOT is allowed to proceed with its preferred design, the boulevard will be elevated for five blocks east of Western Avenue. Now read how Wenger characterizes the elevated road: “The current design ground level portion begins just east of Western Avenue and extends to the east of Oklahoma Avenue, near the Harkins Theater.”
Maybe I’m missing something here… but using the same logic and same measurements, does that mean he would also characterize the jail as “just west of Devon Energy Center”? These are just questions going round and round in my head as I try to understand all of this…
Anyway, here’s a copy of the email:
I received your email, and very much appreciate your interest in the Oklahoma City Boulevard project. Although the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is managing the project, they have been working closely with the City of Oklahoma City and many ideas about the overall design have been discussed. There are numerous options being considered for the various components of the new roadway, including how to best address traffic flow but also to consider important elements such as future development and walkability. At this time, no decisions regarding a final design have been made.
Your concern about the Boulevard being elevated is shared by many, but I believe it is due to lack of drawings and renderings that are not yet available. Although the Boulevard includes elevated sections to provide access and connections to I-44, and also to I-35/I-235, there is a significant portion of ground level roadway that is being designed to ensure opportunities for downtown access and future development. The current design ground level portion begins just east of Western Avenue and extends to the east of Oklahoma Avenue, near the Harkins Theater. This nearly 10 block section will also create several new intersections at Walker, Hudson, Harvey, Robinson, Broadway, Gaylord, and Oklahoma. In addition, since the new roadway will be narrower than the former highway, many areas of the existing highway right-of-way adjacent to the new boulevard will be available to further enhance development opportunities.
I want to give you every assurance the City will maintain its partnership with ODOT, with the goal to develop a new boulevard that will significantly enhance the downtown area. In order to provide better information, City staff is working with ODOT to make a presentation to the City Council on July 31st, 8:30am which will be during their regular meeting. This meeting is aired on Cox Channel 20 and will also be available on the City’s website at www.okc.gov. ODOT has also planned a public meeting on August 21st, 5:30pm, in the Coca Cola Event Center. Both will be opportunities to see what progress has been made, and also to share thoughts and ideas from a public perspective about the project.
Thanks again for your interest, and I hope you will take the opportunity to follow the update to Council and also participate in the upcoming public meeting.
Eric J. Wenger, P.E.
Director Public Works/City Engineer
This story is from the meeting that Jack Money and I showed up at, uninvited:
Crosstown Road Plan Unveiled Southern Route Selected For Rebuilt Interstate 40
By Jack Money, Steve Lackmeyer
Thursday, December 10, 1998
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS, Page 01
The state Transportation Department told local leaders Wednesday they will rebuild Interstate 40 several blocks south of downtown Oklahoma City despite continued opposition to the plan.
But an environmental impact study the transportation department will conduct as part of its planning could leave the old, elevated Crosstown Expressway up and operating as an easy path for commuters in and out of downtown.
State Transportation Secretary Neal McCaleb made that promise to Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, two council members, two state highway commissioners and a dozen other people who met in an “executive briefing” about the transportation department’s plans.
McCaleb offered the suggestion after Humphreys said the southernmost route, referred to as “route D,” would make it difficult for people trying to get downtown from north and west Oklahoma City.
Route D would take the interstate as far as five or six blocks south of its current alignment between Agnew Avenue and its interchange with Interstate 235.
“My point is this,” Humphreys said. “The interstate now makes it easy for people coming from the west and north to get downtown in a hurry when they need to.
“But when you move the interstate south by the river, that easy access goes away because then people will have to travel down blocks and blocks of city streets to get where they are going.”
McCaleb said the elevated highway could be an alternative to a ground-level, tree-lined boulevard proposed for construction along the Crosstown’s current pathway. The boulevard would be connected to the interstate at each of its ends.
Humphreys agreed the boulevard would be more aesthetically pleasing, but would take too long to drive.
McCaleb, however, when asked who would maintain the existing highway, said, “I don’t want to address that question at this point. But someone is going to have to.”
Council members Ann Simank and Mark Schwartz joined Humphreys in criticizing the plan.
Simank said she worries the southern route, built at or below ground level along the path of railroad tracks, will divide her Riverside Neighborhood, a center of Hispanic heritage in Oklahoma City.
But federal highway administration representatives attending the meeting said the railroad tracks already divide the neighborhood. North-south streets passing under the tracks can be rebuilt to cross over the completed highway, they said.
McCaleb and project engineer David Streb said the southernmost alignment is the best for several reasons. These include the alignment’s cost of $237 million compared with a $307 million price tag for option B-3, the path city leaders prefer.
They said option D can carry more vehicles at higher speeds than option B-3, according to the state’s consulting engineers. However, other traffic engineers hired by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority don’t agree.
McCaleb and Streb said option D has the least impact on the minority community’s employment. Streb said both it and B-3, which would take the interstate a couple of blocks south of the existing Crosstown, would relocate businesses.
But a large co-op mill would have to be relocated to make room for that highway alignment. It would not have to be moved for Option D.
McCaleb and Streb said option D would take the least amount of time to build.
“Those are the most compelling arguments that would encourage us to proceed with the environmental impact study on option D,” McCaleb said.
Streb said construction time is key.
“With alternate D… we can build it in phases, leaving your access to downtown just like it is now. That construction time is five years,” he said.
Streb said it would take about eight years to build option B-3. Drivers would be forced to dodge barriers and barrels for much of the construction project.
“The other hard part about this is that once we start construction, it will stay a construction zone until it is finished,” he said.
Humphreys left Wednesday’s meeting disappointed.
“I think the D route as proposed today is very negative to downtown Oklahoma City, from any perspective except to Bricktown,” Humphreys said.
City leaders had favored route B-3 because it was closer to downtown and would not leave downtown with dozens of blighted city blocks needing to be redeveloped.
He added that he and other local leaders would work with what the state proposes.
But Schwartz wasn’t so charitable.
Schwartz said he will oppose the preferred selection in Washington, D.C., adding that he has assurances from federal officials that they will not endorse a highway that divides a Hispanic community.
So far, $103 million has been reserved for the I-40 relocation project.
McCaleb began the meeting by informing participants that it would be public, although he hoped it would not be.
He said he had hoped that members of the citizens advisory committee appointed to help select a new I-40 route could hear about the transportation department’s plans prior to seeing them reported.
“Although this meeting was kind of intended as an executive briefing intended for the community leaders of Oklahoma City, we have been joined by members of the press. And so, everything we say today is for public consumption,” McCaleb said.
“That is regrettable, because the citizens advisory board has been working for us in this process for three years,” he said.
So I’ve been asking, are there options to keeping the boulevard at grade other than a roundabout? This rendering, provided to me by an individual aligned with Friends for a Better Boulevard shows how lanes that slip in and out of the boulevard at Reno Avenue and other crossings might accommodate engineers’ concerns about too many controlled intersections in too compact an area.
I don’t know if it will work. I have received a lot of of feedback to my latest coverage. I’ve not heard from one person who supports rebuilding the boulevard as an elevated roadway. Every response I’ve received has been from those who don’t like the elevated idea, and one person who isn’t happy with the proposed roundabout solution. The questions and concerns I’m hearing from readers are as follows:
- The Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Oklahoma City engineers are focusing their efforts on justifying the elevated boulevard as the only option and are stubbornly opposed to genuinely seeking out other design alternatives;
- Some critics with Friends for a Better Boulevard believe the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is being insincere with its claims that it won’t force a road on the city that the city doesn’t want;
- Several readers said they fear the city council will be intimidated into not forcing a redesign of the boulevard;
- One reader is asking if a lawsuit can be filed to stop the Oklahoma Department of Transportation from moving forward with the project.
- One reader wrote fearing that a roundabout will replicate what he remembered to be a dangerous, badly designed Classen Circle that was removed by the city many years ago;
- More than one reader is challenging whether the boulevard is even needed.
As a reporter, I’ve gotten accustomed to themes and talking points given by interviewees. There’s nothing wrong with them – but when they are done, it’s often to the point that it’s hard to miss.
Such a theme recurred over and over again in my interview this last week with Gary Evans, deputy director at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Promises were made. Promises were made in 1998. Residents were promised a boulevard, elevated until it got to Walker Avenue, would be built in place of the old Interstate 40. Promises were made it would be done within the old highway’s alignment. Residents have been promised it would be done by 2014.
Promises were made …. in 1998 ….
So what was it like in downtown Oklahoma City in 1998? I was there. And I have photos.
In 1998 Ron Norick was finishing his final term as mayor. Bill Clinton was president and he grabbed headlines that year when he announced he foresaw budget surpluses totaling $1.1 trillion over the next decade, including a surplus of $216 billion in 2007. The country was not at war. Students at Stanford started up an obscure web browser they called “Google.” Longtime Midsouth Wrestling fans mourned the loss of Junkyard Dog. Shakespeare in Love somehow won top honors at the Academy Awards. There was no Twitter, no Facebook and no OKC Talk. Downtown housing consisted of a choice between Regency Tower, Sycamore Square or the Garage Lofts. That’s it.
In 1998 I was covering the wave of changes about to sweep downtown. I was covering the debate over the new Interstate 40 and where it should be located. I covered the meeting where the route was chosen and a boulevard was first discussed.
ODOT wants you to know promises were made in 1998. I have dutifully reported just that to you. With context.
Not sure if the folks at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the city’s engineers realize it yet, but it appears as if they’re about to face a stiff opposition to their efforts to move forward with designs for a high-volume boulevard through downtown. The next couple of weeks may be very lively…..
Do you have questions about the progress of Project 180? Curious about a particular development downtown? Want to talk about downtown’s history?
OKC Central Live Chat starts today at 10 am! You can log in @newsok w/ question submissions starting at 9:30 am. I’ll be live at 10 am.
The three all have made note of how nationally-recognized walkability consultant and author Jeff Speck is part of the planning process for the controversial new downtown boulevard set to replace the old alignment of Interstate 40.
Listening to the folks in charge at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, planning will move forward on rebuilding five blocks of the boulevard as an elevated roadway unless they are told to put a halt to such plans by the city. ODOT Director Gary Ridley has made it clear that when he says “the city,” he means either Couch, Clowers or Eric Wenger, and a not the Oklahoma City Council.
Jeff Speck has indeed had a lot of influence on the current makeover of downtown streets as part of Project 180, and was the final push needed to end decades of six-lane wide one-way streets like Hudson Avenue. In my lifetime, in this past decade, city engineers argued that one-way streets like Hudson and Walker Avenues could not be converted to two-way traffic. Chaos would follow, they warned. So when a streetscape was planned for Walker Avenue a decade ago, then Public Works Director Paul Brum insisted adding a two-way conversion to the project was unthinkable.
Speck, invited by Mayor Mick Cornett to share his gospel of promoting walkable streets and curbing sprawl, was quick to argue the city engineers got it all wrong:
“The jaw dropper for me is the city’s traffic count map,” Speck said at the end of a 2009 study of downtown streets. “If you walk the city, and you look at the streets, you would think because of the size of the streets that traffic is two to three times what is actually experienced. There is a shocking disconnect between the size and speediness of all of your downtown streets with a few rare exceptions. ‘It’s ridiculous.”
The conversion of Hudson and Walker Avenues to two-way traffic are almost complete. But now a debate is raging over the boulevard design. Couch, Clowers and Wenger are clearly sympathetic to the elevated design being pursued by state highway engineers. To have an at-grade intersection at Western, Reno and Classen with traffic lights every 100 feet, Wenger said in a recent interview, “goes against every sound engineering judgment.”
We now know Brum was wrong in his conclusions that converting Walker and Hudson Avenues to two-way traffic was unthinkable. What if Wenger is wrong? Is it possible that by designing a road to handle 94,000 vehicles a day in what is intended to be a pedestrian-friendly corridor, the process of creating that road is the actual cause of the eventual traffic? Or what if this the 2012 equivalent of designing a six-lane-wide one-way Hudson Avenue?
I’m not sure if Couch, Clowers or Wenger have read Speck’s book, “Suburban Nation.” I’m not sure if downtown’s civic leadership and developers have read it either. But if they haven’t, they might want to take a few minutes to read the following passage:
There is, however, a much deeper problem than the way highways are placed and managed. It raises the question of why we are still building highways at all. The simple truth is that building more highways and widening existing roads, almost always motivated by concern over traffic, does nothing to reduce traffic. In the long run, in fact, it increases traffic. This revelation is so counterintuitive that it bears repeating: adding lanes makes traffic worse. This paradox was suspected as early as 1942 by Robert Moses, who noticed that the highways he had built around New York City in 1939 were somehow generating greater traffic problems than had existed previously. Since then, the phenomenon has been well documented, most notably in 1989, when the Southern California Association of Governments concluded that traffic-assistance measures, be they adding lanes, or even double-decking the roadways, would have no more than a cosmetic effect on Los Angeles’ traffic problems. The best it could offer was to tell people to work closer to home, which is precisely what highway building mitigates against.
Across the Atlantic, the British government reached a similar conclusion. Its studies showed that increased traffic capacity causes people to drive more–a lot more–such that half of any driving-time savings generated by new roadways are lost in the short run. In the long run, potentially all savings are expected to be lost. In the words of the Transport Minister, “The fact of the matter is that we cannot tackle our traffic problems by building more roads.”2 While the British have responded to this discovery by drastically cutting their road-building budgets, no such thing can be said about Americans.
There is no shortage of hard data. A recent University of California at Berkeley study covering thirty California counties between 1973 and 1990 found that, for every 10 percent increase in roadway capacity, traffic increased 9 percent within four years’ time. For anecdotal evidence, one need only look at commuting patterns in those cities with expensive new highway systems. USA Today published the following report on Atlanta: “For years, Atlanta tried to ward off traffic problems by building more miles of highways per capita than any other urban area except Kansas City…As a result of the area’s sprawl, Atlantans now drive an average of 35 miles a day, more than residents of any other city.”· This phenomenon, which is now well known to those members of the transportation industry who wish to acknowledge it, has come to be called induced traffic.
The mechanism at work behind induced traffic is elegantly explained by an aphorism gaining popularity among traffic engineers: “Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.” Increased traffic capacity makes longer commutes less burdensome, and as a result, people are willing to live farther and farther from their workplace. As increasing numbers of people make similar decisions, the long-distance commute grows as crowded as the inner city, commuters clamor for additional lanes, and the cycle repeats itself. This problem is compounded by the hierarchical organization of the new roadways, which concentrate through traffic on as few streets as possible.
The phenomenon of induced traffic works in reverse as well. When New York’s West Side Highway collapsed in 1973, an NYDOT study showed that 93 percent of the car trips lost did not reappear elsewhere; people simply stopped driving. A similar result accompanied the destruction of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway in the 1989 earthquake. Citizens voted to remove the freeway entirely despite the apocalyptic warnings of traffic engineers. Surprisingly, a recent British study found that downtown road removals tend to boost local economies, while new roads lead to higher urban unemployment. So much for road-building as a way to spur the economy.·
If traffic is to be discussed responsibly, it must first be made clear that the level of traffic which drivers experience daily, and which they bemoan so vehemently, is only as high as they are willing to countenance. If it were not, they would adjust their behavior and move, carpool, take transit, or just stay at home, as some choose to do. How crowded a roadway is at any given moment represents a condition of equilibrium between people’s desire to drive and their reluctance to fight traffic. Because people are willing to suffer inordinately in traffic before seeking alternatives–other than clamoring for more highways–the state of equilibrium of all busy roads is to have stop-and-go traffic. The question is not how many lanes must be built to ease congestion but how many lanes of congestion would you want? Do you favor four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour, or sixteen?
This condition is best explained by what specialists call latent demand. Since the real constraint on driving is traffic, not cost, people are always ready to make more trips when the traffic goes away. The number of latent trips is huge–perhaps 30 percent of existing traffic. Because of latent demand, adding lanes is futile, since drivers are already poised to use them up.
While the befuddling fact of induced traffic is well understood by sophisticated traffic engineers, it might as well be a secret, so poorly has it been disseminated. The computer models that transportation consultants use do not even consider it, and most local public works directors have never heard of it at all. As a result, from Maine to Hawaii, city, county, and even state engineering departments continue to build more roadways in anticipation of increased traffic, and, in doing, create that traffic. The most irksome aspect of this situation is that these road-builders are never proved wrong; in fact, they are always proved ‘right’: “You see,” they say, “I told you that traffic was coming.”·
After almost two decades of covering City Hall, however, I can recognize when engineers are reluctant to consider other options when it comes to a road project. I saw it with the late Paul Brum, city engineer, when it came to his insistence that rebuilding the Walnut Avenue Bridge was a bad idea, that it would be bad engineering and create a dangerous traffic situation compared to the at-grade road he preferred (he lost and the bridge was built).
We’ve seen a debate between the engineers who say at-grade crossings aren’t possible due to too many street intersections in a compact area at the boulevard’s west connection to the new I-40. And we’ve seen the at-grade advocates argue for a traffic roundabout assuming the engineers are correct about the crossings.
The engineers, in turn, argue a roundabout will cost millions, delay the opening of the boulevard, and have all but openly said “heck no, this won’t go.”
But have the engineers really explored all options?
I drove the area again this afternoon. And quite frankly, the traffic along Classen pretty much gives out along Sheridan Avenue.
Why is that?
Well folks, Classen used to dead-end about a block south of the old I-40 (the future boulevard path) until about a decade ago when it was extended a few more blocks into what is now a sleepy warehouse area.
What if Classen were to dead-end again at Sheridan Avenue? Would it be the end of the world? We certainly know that traffic is almost non-existent along nearby California Avenue. So what if California Avenue and Classen were to dead-end and not intersect with the boulevard? My skills at photo manipulation are horrendous. But check out the aerial above… what if it IS possible to do regular intersections?
I’m running into a lot of concerned folks who are asking, what will it take for engineers to seriously look at how to build the boulevard without elevating it, instead of spending their effort to justify their current plans? What if an outside engineering firm were hired that would not be subject to current egos involved in the current design?
So are city and state highway engineers really communicating? I’ve spent today trying to figure out if the Oklahoma Department of Transportation has set a public meeting for 5:30 p.m. August 21 at the Bricktown Event Center. David Todd, MAPS 3 coordinator, reported just that to the MAPS 3 Parks Subcommittee this afternoon. Yet the Oklahoma Department of Transportation today has repeatedly told me no such meeting is set yet, even though it was reported by Clifton Adcock with the Oklahoma Gazette (I’ve been asking about a meeting for the past week). I even got Clifton on the speaker phone with ODOT, and they denied saying a meeting as set. So what am I to report?
Clifton had his own write up in the Gazette today with a very interesting contradiction: the city and ODOT both claiming the other had final say on whether the design of the boulevard and whether it should be elevated. Folks, here’s what I can tell you: there is no confusion at ODOT when it comes to wanting to let out the first boulevard construction contract at their first commission meeting in August (open to the public) and that they remain determined to finish construction of the boulevard and give it over to the city in 2014.