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State road coalition adds Keating, targets Washington

State road coalition adds Keating, targets Washington

November 13, 2009


TULSA – With federal highway funds dwindling under this recession, the Oklahoma road-funding coalition TRUST will focus on securing that vital revenue stream in 2010 – with former Gov. Frank Keating taking point.

Keating will volunteer his time to the Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation interest group while serving as president of the American Council of Life Insurers in Washington, D.C. He intends to relinquish both positions and move back to Oklahoma later next year.

In a press conference Thursday morning at the Tulsa Press Club, TRUST President Neil McCaleb said federal fuel tax collections entered a slow decline in September, reflecting reduced consumer driving and use of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Those recessionary trends siphoned off $22 million in monthly federal tax revenue earmarked to Oklahoma transportation infrastructure, according to the state Department of Transportation.

At the same time, McCaleb said debate over health care reform, stimulus efforts and other federal programs have distracted President Barack Obama’s administration and Congress from addressing critical transportation needs and approving vital appropriations. Last month Oklahoma’s senior U.S. senator, Jim Inhofe, said federal inaction could cost the state $30 million in lost funding.

With Oklahoma’s eight-year construction work plan reduced by $480 million due to declining federal revenues, McCaleb said TRUST will redirect its 2010 efforts on Washington while seeking to maintain state budget funding levels during the upcoming legislative session.

The state must spend $196 million or more on roads and bridges or face federal penalties under the stimulus package.

Keating achieved a strong transportation record through his two terms as governor, helping secure more than $800 million in infrastructure growth. Since 2003 he has led the ACLI.

Albert C. “Kell” Kelly Jr., chief executive of SpiritBank and the co-chairman of TRUST, said maintaining and improving the road system represents a key factor in Oklahoma’s economic development. The coalition of more than 120 transportation-minded organizations intends to launch a public relations campaign in 2010 to generate grass-roots support.

“So goes the roads, so goes the economy,” said Keating, who will replace Tom Love as co-chairman of TRUST.

The chief executive of Love’s Travel Stops and Country Stores has served in that role since TRUST’s 2005 founding. Love will now take the chairman emeritus post.

McCaleb, who once headed Oklahoma’s Transportation Department and Turnpike Authority, admitted there was no easy solution to the federal funding shortfall. Neither increased fuel taxes nor higher road use taxes draw support among lawmakers.

“The current inaction of Congress in renewing federal highway funding is costing our state millions,” he said. “And the reality is the federal fuel tax simply is not sufficient to maintain our state’s roads and bridges. We are going to have to be innovative, think outside the box and put all possible alternative funding methods on the table.”

Over the last two decades Oklahoma has managed to improve its position as a “donor” state. But while it no longer receives just 81 percent of the federal fuel taxes it collected, McCaleb said today’s parity position represents specially funded programs, not changes to the disbursement formula.

“We want to get on formula at parity,” he said.

The state also continues to divert about 36 percent of highway taxes into other general revenue areas, such as education.

“We’re not going to get into that this year,” said Kelly. “Really, the fight right now is with Governor Keating in Washington.”

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