Recently, Oklahoma's newest congressman, James Lankford, hosted US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica's "field hearing" at Oklahoma City Community College. The subject was the upcoming federal transportation funding reauthorization. The only voices Lankford apparently authorized to speak for all Oklahomans were those of state transportation czar Gary Ridley, his mentor, protector and sponsor, Neal McCaleb and three of their very good pals, each a president of one of ODOT's favored contractors.
It was a show so completely over the top that it seemed Congressman Mica had to look away from time to time to keep from snickering out loud at the outrageous charade.
They spent a lot of time reminding us all of how great Gary Ridley is. After all, he got the Webbers Falls I-40 Bridge, knocked down by an errant barge, back up in less than 60 days -- some kind of a world record. They went on and on about it.
The message brought to the congressmen by the contractors and their bureaucratic enablers was this: We want more federal money, but less federal oversight. The contractors are "the experts," you see, and should be allowed to take the public's money without constraint and without accountability, apparently. They don't like the Environmental Protection Agency. They don't like recycling highway materials (they like carrying off state treasures like the ancient Arbuckle Mountains, grinding them up and making ugly roads and bridges out of them -- because "it's cheap.") They don't like artwork and decoration on roadway bridges. They like building highways over historic rail corridors and assets. And they don't give a hoot about people with disabilities.
Lankford himself was a sight to behold. He's been presented to us as sort of a "Jefferson Smith-type" -- like the character played by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's fabled "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" -- and yet it seems Lankford perhaps never saw the movie. If so, he somehow got its plot twisted -- because there he was, up to his eyebrows in the cesspool with Oklahoma's version of "Big Jim Taylor's Machine," giving the special-interest thugs and their political puppets the exclusive say.
I asked John Mica's lead liason directly after the meeting, "What do you know about the Webbers Falls Bridge disaster?" His answer was pretty much to the point: "What they just said up there."
"Why do you figure a major highway corridor bridge over a navigable river could have been so easily destroyed by an errant barge?" I asked.
He frankly admitted that he didn't know. "Well, here's how it happened," I explained. "You see -- it seems like those rocket scientists you've been praising up there for the last hour and a half sorta forgot to erect cheap, simple barge-strike bumpers to protect the outer, upstream piers. And they had 35 years to do it. Of course, when river pilot Joe Dedmon went unconscious that awful day, guess where his barges went? So, you see -- ODOT and nobody BUT ODOT was responsible for the 14 deaths caused by their staggering dereliction of the public trust. But were they called to account? Were they ever questioned about it? Nope. Instead -- they got a big new bridge construction contract and since then have been treated like some kind of heroes."
He looked like I'd hit him in the face with a hammer.
"Oh -- but there's more. Much more," I said. "Are you aware that, when they wrecked the magnificent OKC Union Station rail yard to make way for their four-mile reconstruction of Interstate 40 in downtown Oklahoma City, they sort of failed to tell us that they'd hit a large, submerged pool of acid sludge from the old Choate Refinery -- and rather than alerting the public, rather than cleaning up the mess before going any further, they kept it all quiet for more than five years, covered, apparently, by the cooperative silence of ODEQ. Then -- they went right ahead, sinking bridge piers for new structures spanning the new roadway into that highly corrosive acid sludge."
"By the way," I noted, "that four mile road project was presented as likely to cost $236 million. Today, its actual cost-to-date nears ONE BILLION DOLLARS with still nothing anybody not in a four-wheel-drive or tracked vehicle could actually traverse. And, of course, they obliterated our elegant and historic central rail passenger facility, confluence of our 866 mile state-owned rail system, to make way for this mess -- even as OKC leaders claim they want to spend millions more building a new hub for regional transit and intercity rail services -- in (of course) BRICKTOWN...".
I further observed that Oklahoma government has never once completed a comprehensive HIGHWAY COST ALLOCATION STUDY verifiably establishing what each class of vehicles using state roads should be paying versus what they now pay for the use of those highways. Somehow, the heavy trucks inflicting thousands of times the road and bridge damage done by autos somehow get away with paying three-cents-per-galon less state fuel tax than the autos pay.
"Honestly, sir," I said, "does this sound like people who need LESS federal oversight -- or A WHOLE LOT MORE?"
ODOT is the focus of the "commonize costs / privatize profits" philosophy of government in this state, and the poster child for corrupt, unaccountable, special-interest-driven betrayals of the public interest. I once asked Ridley why the department had completely ignored years of principled, well-researched citizen objection to the detruction of our statewide rail passenger network center to make way for four miles of road, his answer was not surprising: "Well, Tom, there WAS a time when we didn't even have to ask you what you thought...."
And what other individual would even be considered for such responsibility in state government (he serves simultaneously as Secretary of Transportation and director of both ODOT and Turnpikes!) without even an undergraduate college degree?
There's much more to the story, folks -- and it doesn't get any prettier, I assure you. The question is -- "Is this really the kind of government your grandchildren deserve?"
This is an excerpt of an article originally published by Oklahoma Citizen.