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Cities receive federal funds for community improvements

Cities receive federal funds for community improvements

Journal Record
June 30, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – Thirty Oklahoma cities have been awarded a total of $12 million in federal funds for largely aesthetic community improvement projects through an Oklahoma Department of Transportation enhancement program, officials announced.

But aesthetics involves more than just appearances, said Newcastle City Manager Nick Nazar.

“This will provide a pretty substantial area for walking for our citizens, and a safer route for people to exercise on. We don’t have a sidewalk currently that connects our schools together, so kids have had to walk alongside the busy road,” he said.

Newcastle’s trails project is a prime example of the intended use of the federally earmarked funds, said Rick Johnson, special projects branch manager for the Transportation Department. The money is proposed to be set aside by Congress specifically for aesthetic improvement projects, such as beautification, streetscaping, bicycle paths, sidewalks and historical preservation. The funds cannot be used for normal road or bridge construction, Johnson said.

He said the state Transportation Commission, which oversees the funds’ distribution, approved only half of the 60 submitted proposals for enhancement projects. The approved projects are worth about $17 million after matching sponsor funds are included. He estimated 80 percent of the proposals involve new bicycle and pedestrian paths or bringing existing trails into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“A lot of the smaller communities are trying to make their downtown areas accessible for all people, and a bulk of the money is spent on features such as handicap ramps and accessible sidewalks into businesses,” he said. “So there is an aesthetic component, but I would say the bulk of the program is to provide compliance to businesses and stores in rural communities that would not otherwise be able to.”

The commission also approved six broader categories to receive $6 million in dedicated enhancement funding: bicycle and pedestrian programs, facility improvements, outdoor advertising removal, scenic and historic highway programs, tree grants and disability accessibility programs.

The commission filled as many requests as fully possible. “We got to $12 million, and that happened to be 30 projects,” he said. “They were all noteworthy projects, in very highly competitive programs.”

“Without these funds, they probably couldn’t afford to do these projects on their own, or surely not in as quick a time frame,” he said. “So we get a lot of added benefit from being able to streamline these projects for the communities.”

Other examples of approved projects include the city of Norman’s multimodal path on State Highway 9, Okmulgee’s downtown streetscaping, the Joe Creek Trail to the Arkansas River in Tulsa and the sidewalk connection project in Sand Springs.

For Muskogee, the funds mean the completion of the Centennial Trail, a transition of old railroad rights of way to pedestrian and biking paths looping the city, Parks Director Mark Wilkerson said. The project was started during the city’s centennial celebration in 1998. The latest award will allow the city to complete its fourth phase, and bring the trail’s total length to about eight miles.

“It’s very popular for the trail users, and they consider it a valuable asset to the community,” Wilkerson said. “But the way I view the impact of it is that these railroad right of ways go through the old township residential areas that have become kind of dilapidated and abandoned, so I see this as another investment in those neighborhoods, an Urban Renewal type of improvement.

“Then there’s the actual transportation benefit as well, providing off-road trails for bicycles to commute across town. We’re tying retail and neighborhoods together with other destinations,” he said.

Johnson said that although the funding for the projects is expected to be available through the Transportation Enhancement Program funds in fiscal year 2010-11, it is contingent on the reauthorization of that program, which is part of the federal Transportation Trust Fund now being considered by the U.S. Congress. Until those details are clarified, the money cannot be accessed by local communities.

Copyright © 2009 The Journal Record All Rights Reserved
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