By CHARLES CANTRELL
MOVING NORTHWEST: Grading has begun at the east end of a 2.2 mile section of the 19-mile long Gilcrease Expressway. The earthmoving machinery shown here will eventually make a 60-foot cut in one of the many rolling hills along the right-of-way. Each earthmover carries around 20 cubic yards per trip. A “round” takes approximately five to seven minutes. At that rate, the job of moving little Oklahoma mountains will take around 450 days.
CHARLES CANTRELL for GTR Newspapers
A portion of the city’s expressway system that has been on the books since 1961 may finally be seeing the light of day thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Tulsa Metro Chamber’s “OneVoice” legislative agenda, the State of Oklahoma, Tulsa County, Indian Nation Council Of Governments (INCOG) and the City of Tulsa. If completed, and certainly if is the operative word here, the Gilcrease Expressway segment running north and west of Tulsa would complete the outer expressway loop. It has been a long time coming and could have a major impact on the city’s future development.
The segment in question is a 19-mile stretch of highway running from I-244 east of Memorial Drive to I-44 at West 51st Street. Construction has recently begun on a 2.2-mile portion from the L.L. Tisdale Parkway to 42nd West Avenue. Initially the project will be built as a two-lane highway on a four-lane right of way, providing for future widening as needed. Scheduled bids for the final phase of paving for this small segment will go out in 2011. There remains a challenging stretch still in the planning stage running from 42nd West Avenue and tying in at 41st South, west of the Arkansas River. Bit by bit city leaders continue to chip away at the goal of finishing the loop in an economic climate that is, to say the least, difficult and several funding challenges lie ahead.
Legislation making its way through the state legislature under the stewardship of Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa and House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa and with bi-partisan support, would enable an Oklahoma Turnpike Authority feasibility study for a bridge crossing the Arkansas at 57th West Avenue. The study would also look at options for how best to fund the access highways to the bridge. This could include tollgates on the bridge. Funding and the eventual building of the bridge remains a major obstacle to completion of the north loop. Consequently all options to making it happen are on the table according to Gwendolyn Caldwell, Tulsa Metro Chamber vice president of government affairs.
“The Tulsa Metro Chamber has made the completion of the Gilcrease Expressway a number one priority and we, along with the state legislature, Tulsa County and the Tulsa Mayor’s office, are supporting the exploration of all creative options to make this happen.”
Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett has made the completion of the loop a top priority for his administration. Recently while in Washington D.C. the mayor used the occasion to show Department of Transportation officials plans for completing the Gilcrease Expressway loop including the idea of making the planned Arkansas River crossing a toll bridge. According to media reports, Mayor Bartlett said the officials were impressed with the idea and in particular were interested in the economic impact such a project could engender for the area.
Whether expressway systems fuel suburban development or the growth of suburbs bring about the ever-growing need for expressways is an on-going debate, but there is little disagreement that expressway accessibility is an essential component for economic development of commuting suburbs. The growth primarily to the south and east of the city over the last six decades is testament to the symbiotic relationship between multi-lane thoroughfares and bedroom communities. The Broken Arrow Expressway is the most obvious example of how multilane thoroughfares are vital components feeding economic development to a segment of a growing city.
On the other hand there is much undeveloped real estate stretching north and west of the city available for development, but without the needed infrastructure in place to facilitate residential, commercial and business development there is no impetus or incentive to growth.
The emergence of inner-city venues of entertainment in the last few years has brought back the downtown area as a viable destination for the region. This, along with the fact that many Tulsans’ workplaces are downtown and downtown workers are increasingly looking for a shorter commute means that a north and west Tulsa location would be preferable to the far south Tulsa suburbs.
One thing is certain: concerted efforts are being made by many government leaders and the Tulsa Metro Chamber to complete the city’s outer loop because it is long overdue, its inevitable completion whenever that might be will likely spawn a new era of economic development for the north and west quadrants of the city and it could help increase the tax base and city coffers. It could very well bring about a sea change of balanced geographical growth to a city that has too long sprawled to the south.