Choctaw’s ‘Road Forward’

Election scheduled for Feb. 11

Voters will soon have the opportunity to determine how the City of Choctaw moves forward with road repairs.
A Feb. 11 election will determine if residents wish to continue ongoing practices of road repair efforts or if they’d rather kickstart a new era of road management focused on reconstruction.

Indian Meridian Road just south of SE 29th Street is just one of the many areas in Choctaw that city officials say needs to be completely reconstructed. (Photo by Ryan Horton)

The current proposal, broken down into two separate ballot questions, would provide the city with an estimated $40 million in dedicated funding for roads over the next 25 years. However, the plan is designed to provide a long-term solution as funding would continue and additional projects would be completed allowing for the eventual improvement and maintenance of all the city’s 127 miles of roadway.
The first proposition calls for the city to take on general obligation bonds in a sum not-to-exceed $13 million. The second proposition will request voters to approve a new three-quarters of one percent excise tax.
Three years ago Choctaw hired Ed Brown as city manager, and some of his first work was to inventory city assets, infrastructure and financials.
He says it didn’t take him long to see a serious problem with the condition of city roads, and the funds available for needed road repairs.
A study would soon report that Choctaw needs about $400 million in road repairs citywide, while only having about $2 million for the annual operating budget.
Brown informed the City Council that a major change would be needed to allow for the city to catch up with current infrastructure needs and to move Choctaw forward.
The work leading to the two election propositions officially began back in May when a citizen-driven task force was started to do in-depth research on local road issues and come up with possible long-term solutions.
Being supported by two city councilmen and city staff, the mayor’s road task force formed three subcommittees, made up of citizens, to develop a plan for permanently fixing Choctaw’s road problems.
“When I first heard of a task force being organized to solve the crisis we faced regarding roads in Choctaw, I requested that I be a part of this group to advocate on behalf of our schools. It was important that this task force addressed the concerns of parents who struggle daily to drop off their children safely because of a lack of turn lanes into our schools,” said Choctaw-Nicoma PArk Superintendent Dr. Jim McCharen.
“The time is now to continue your investment in our children in the form of better roads and traffic flow improvements.”
Once the plan was finalized a town hall meeting was hosted, and city officials took many opportunities to speak to clubs and organizations throughout the community.
Additionally, an informative webpage was put up by city staff to help inform the public about the upcoming Feb. 11 election. The page can be found by navigating to Home>Residents> February 11, 2020 special Election at mychoctaw.org.
City staff and have continued to address concerns and questions sent through that site.
“We as a council have listened to your concerns. We called for an outside engineering firm to evaluate. We asked for citizens to bring input on how to move forward. We have agreed that all of this work will be bid out to professionals. We want to do this the right way,” said mayor Randy Ross.
If proposition No. 1 is approved, city officials say a 6-mill levy would be the target to accomplish this portion of the road project funding.
The tax would be added to the property taxes of homeowners in the city. For example, a 6-mill levy on a $100,000 home with a homestead exemption would result in property tax increase of $60 per year, or $5 a month.
The long-term plan would have the city returning to the voters sometime in the next 10-15 years to authorize additional bonds that would be issued as the older bonds are paid off.
The second proposition will request voters to approve a new three-quarters of one percent excise tax.
The new sales tax (0.75%) would go strictly toward constructing, improving, repairing and the maintaining of streets, roads, alleys, bridges and sidewalks.
The proposed new sales tax is meant to be a permanent increase intended as a long-term solution for road repairs  and improvements, but the tax could be undone later with similar action by the City Council and a vote of the people.
If approved, the sales tax rate in Choctaw would go from 8.75 to 9.5 percent.
Citizens will cast their ballot at their usual voting location Feb. 11.

Opinion: Dodging the Potholes

By Zeke Lay

I’ve lived in Choctaw for 60 years.  Let me use that vantage point to offer a perspective on our roads.  As kids we used to watch the road grader drive by smoothing the sand.  We would play in the fresh dirt.  Choctaw was ‘country’ then; maybe 3 cars would pass on any given day (Reno and Indian Meridian).  When it rained a lot, my older brother would bring out the farm tractor to pull the school bus out of the ditch.  Roads were a mess.
A few mile sections were gravel, even fewer were paved.  We knew every bump by heart as we bicycled 10-15 miles to ‘gather the gang’ on those long summer days.  Around 1970 the asphalt machines arrived.  Dad, a veteran of World War II, came from a farming community.  He watched; and complained about the way the roads were being built.
“These roads won’t last” he would say, “they aren’t building up the base or putting on enough asphalt.”
If you see the picture of the random cores drilled by the engineers to determine what shape the roads are really in, it shows Dad was right.
Too little aggregate (the gravel they mix in), and thin layers plastered over thin layers.  Looks good for a while; looks like a new road.  But like Dad said, it won’t last.  When the new layers do not bond together with the previous, water migrates in between, freezes and expands; those type of ‘fixes’ turns the road surface into those potholes that seem to chase your car.
Don’t get me wrong, we were happy to ride bikes on them, we were happy the bus didn’t slide into the ditches and get stuck.  Choctaw was small then, we qualified for Oklahoma County help, and we had friends in the government.  Those roads were built with Other People’s Money.  And we were happy to have them.
But like it or not, Choctaw is too big for County help anymore.  Now we need to get the roads built correctly; with Our Own Money.  Like Goldilocks, we have 3 choices.  We can do what the County did; it’s cheap, looks good, and won’t last.  We can pay for solid engineering advice, vet the process through public meetings, and trust our city government that, although suffering from growing pains, has not failed in their effort to lift us from the ‘small town’ government mistakes of the past, or we can do nothing and complain about it incessantly.  Only now, we’ll only be able to blame ourselves.
I wish Choctaw was still that sleepy town of yester-yore.  I also wish past city managers were a little more forward thinking.  But those things are paths that are no longer available.  Choctaw must get started on better roads.  Ed Brown, our city manager, has a past filled with success, a present filled with due diligence, and a future plan in mind for Choctaw.  The plan is to begin the process of constructing roads properly; there are over 120 miles of them.  Knowing the new surfaces will last 3 or more decades provides the vital ability to accurately plan and budget Choctaw’s future.  Best to start it now and do it right.

 

By Dr. Jim McCharen

Choctaw Community Members,
In just a matter of days, you will have the opportunity to move Choctaw forward with your vote to properly repair and improve many of our city roads.  I am approaching this opportunity from a school safety issue.
As Superintendent of Choctaw-Nicoma Park Schools, it is my responsibility to ensure the safety and security of our children daily, and it starts with them getting to and from school.
When I first heard of a task force being organized to solve the crisis we faced regarding roads in Choctaw, I requested that I be a part of this group to advocate on behalf of our schools. It was important that this task force addressed the concerns of parents who struggle daily to drop off their children safely because of a lack of turn lanes into our schools.   It was important to recognize that our teenage high school drivers heading to the high school should be able to focus on driving without fear that an oncoming vehicle may be swerving into them while avoiding potholes.  It was important that this group find a solution so that our bus drivers can spend their mornings and afternoons driving on roads that do not rattle and shake our students the entire duration of their trip because of potholes and uneven roads. I have witnessed accidents and multiple near-accidents around our schools and on our bus routes because of the lack of turn lanes and/ or bad roads.
My job is to support what is best for our students and put their safety first.  The western part of the Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District lies within the boundaries of Midwest City. Our students, bus drivers, and patrons in the western part of our school district drive on these Midwest City roads. There is a world of difference in the condition of the Midwest City roads compared to our Choctaw roads. We need to improve our Choctaw roads to those standards. Our students, bus drivers, and patrons deserve to drive on excellent roads just as they do in the Midwest City area of our school district. Tax dollars going toward turn lanes and other improvements on roads frontingWestfall Elementary, James Griffith Intermediate, Indian Meridian Elementary, Choctaw Elementary, Choctaw Middle School, and Choctaw High School are well worth the investment.  It is worth allowing our bus drivers to give our kids a safe and smooth ride to and from school each day.
Our school district has seen the benefits of a community investing in itself.  The school bond issue passed by communityseveral years ago allowed us to build and repair facilitiesmaking Choctaw-Nicoma Park Schools on par with other 6A school districtsin regards to facilities and technology.  The bond issue allowed us to build two new schools, safe rooms, additional classrooms,an incredible performing arts center and other fine arts facilities, and top-notch athletic facilities.  The time is now to continue your investment in our children in the form of better roads and traffic flow improvements.
As you have trusted me for nearly two decades to lead our school district, I am asking you to trust our city officials and community members who have put this plan together and give them your support for better roads on Tuesday, February 11th!

By Ed Brown

Hello Team Choctaw!  These are exciting times for Choctaw as we ready for a General Obligation Bond Election on Feb 11th.
Specifically, to establish a perpetual systematic plan to take care of roads into the future.  The scope of the roads issue for Choctaw is enormous, however, unless you live in a bubble, many understand the issue is not restricted just to Choctaw.  Oklahoma as a Sales Tax only structure (the only State in the Union) presents challenges to Cities state-wide who struggle to fund failing infrastructure for their Citizens.
Cities notoriously approach the problem in one of three ways:  1) Take what money they have and spread as much asphalt as can be spread to cover as many roads as possible—usually done as a mill and overlay, as the sales tax money available is not enough to do the job  2) Over build a road to ensure it lasts forever, 3)  Wing it and hope for the best—sometimes cities get lucky here but mostly not… None of these approaches lends itself to the fiduciary expenditure of citizens tax money.
The very first “Big Rock” I took on as City Manager, and was tasked to do by our City Council, was to work on a solution to fix our roads.
When I say solution, I mean a process, one that is repeatable to take care of roads into the future. In order to do so I had to understand the scope of the task.  I asked my staff for current inventory, condition, last maintenance or construction project, and scheduled road projects into the future.
I knew it might be a stretch that a small town might have this process in place but I had to ask.  Our starting point was ground zero, leading to a staff effort to come up with an assessment process to categorize and score every inch of the 127 miles of road in Choctaw.  The first step of determining scope was to identify criteria for assessing each road.
The criteria Development Services implemented, with assistance of the City Engineer, went something like this: 1) Class of road—Arterial, Collector, or Residential. The class of road intuitively accounts for traffic numbers.  Arterial has more traffic than collector, then residential with the least amount of traffic.  2) Road assessment—staff drove every inch of the 127 miles of road and scored each road somewhere between very good to fail.
There is a Power Point document on the City Web Site with pictures of road types in various stages of wear.  3) Added points for truck routes, snow routes,  and school zones.  Road sections were scored and recorded on an excel spreadsheet (Also found on the City Web Site) highest score to lowest score.  It took staff 1 year to complete this project, but the list was exactly the scope I was looking for in my original question, what is the process by which we work roads.  We now have one.
Now that I had the list, cost, and scope of the problem facing me, my next thought was how do I start working down this list with the limited funds available.
I live the city budget every day, and direct your attention to my first statements above:  Oklahoma funds Cities mostly by Sales Tax alone.  With our current state, the City funds a Street and Alley account which fluctuates between 30 – 50% of 1 cent, garnering about $500K a year.  Half of that off the top goes to salaries and benefits for Street personnel, leaving about $250K or so to take care of our streets each year.  Mostly repair and maintenance with no possibility of construction.  Next I looked at our Capital fund.
The Capital line item obviously takes care of all equipment and infrastructure capital requirements for the city, including road requirements.  It takes many years to build that fund to a point where we might be able to do a mill and overlay project of a section line road—including not committing to any other requirements for equipment.
Mill and overlay of a section line road every five years does not come close to addressing problems and only would exacerbate frustration with roads.  Short of shutting city operations down annually I needed a policy alternative to start attacking the problem.  I took the list to Council and they formed a Roads Committee to review the staff work, come up with funding options, and produce a list of viable roads from the staff prioritized list.  The roads selected come mostly from page 1 and 2 of the staff list. Obviously the committee’s work resulted in the funding strategy Council is putting to a vote on Feb 11th.  Cities around the state struggle with the same funding structure problems.
I hear this a lot, “mistakes of the past”, I think the statement indicates our Council or staff is responsible for the current state of roads.  I submit to you, for a variety of reasons, the biggest cause to the condition of  roads in Choctaw is centered around the funding streams available to the Cities in Oklahoma.
This funding structure, especially for smaller and medium sized cities with minimal tax base, forces cities into a “baling wire and duct tape” approach concerning capital requirements and improvements. Most of our roads confirmed by the city engineer when explaining the road core samples, were constructed and repaired by the county sometime in the past.
Trying to cut costs and stretch funding as far as it could go, the mill and overlay of roads was the standard practice to include repairs the City funded in 2000.  Street crews are no longer able to even make the most basic repairs, like filling potholes, as the multiple layers continue to move and shift as each vehicle passes.  This is an important point as I hear people talk about poor preventive maintenance or subpar repairs done by the hardworking Street teams.  City Crews did the work on 23rd Street in front of Sonic.
The difference here is the State Highway is not a mill and overlay road and has a great base, unlike most of our City roads.  The patch job is smooth and level and pretty much went unnoticed by the general populace.  I am trying to provide that same quality for our City.
I have read and heard the City is only fixing a small percentage of the roads rated as “failed” according to the Staff assessment.  As I identified in the 2nd paragraph above there was more to each road assessment than just condition. Other factors made up the score of each road which created the 1 to N list of roads in Choctaw.  For my piece of mind I compared the 12 roads selected by the committee for the election,  to the Staff 1 – N list, and most of the roads are on the 1st page of the list with a few sections falling on page 2 and 3.
The Roads Committee in order to get the most bang for the buck from the bond money and Sales Tax projections had to dove tail available money to the list of prioritized roads.
Therefore it did not make sense to just start at the top and work their way down—there would be no need for a committee had that been the strategy.  Some of this comes down to an art to maximize the roads on the list.
What about residential roads?
There will be money available to start fixing our worst residential roads.
The current estimates for the 12 roads are stand alone cost estimates, so they are higher estimates than what we expect when we go out for bid.  When we start execution of the bid process there will be efficiency in numbers.  For instance, the current environment indicates if we advertised for $10M in roads projects we can expect upwards of about a 20% savings due to efficiencies in the bidding process.
With that savings neighborhoods like Seikel Oaks and Shadoan Ridgedale will be high on the residential list.
I have answered questions about the Golf Course, and if we just did away with the Golf Course the City would have plenty of money for roads.
The golf course is a standalone business activity within the Choctaw Utilities Authority’s purview. In other words, it is a fee-for-service activity.  In a perfect world the golf course would stand on its own with no monetary assistance.
With that said, the money we have actually spent on the golf course that is taxpayer fronted is $435K with a budgeted – but not yet spent – $175K this year. Yes, in theory we could have paved half a road with that money, but I have to believe the long-term benefit to the community justifies the investment made to date.  Something tangible is the City now owns 80 acres of prime real estate. We cannot sell the land to anyone other than the previous owners for ten years, per the purchase contract language, but once that time is past we are just paying down the note and watching the value rise.
If the City had not stepped in the land would have been another housing development on some prime real estate.  Now, in 2026 (ten years after purchase date) the City has  unlimited options for this land.  If we no longer want the golf course we can build a conference center, a recreation area, or even something like “Top-Golf”.
Or, we can keep nine holes and make a retreat hotel or the like. There is significant future benefit to the City in the long run and it is very short-sighted to focus on the now, debating whether the transferred money could have been used for a road.  Your Council is accepting the risks of owning the 80 acres over repaving a one-mile stretch of blacktop.
In summary, Council tasked me to produce a long-term approach so I would not pass this on to the next manager, or continue to leave our citizens with growing out-year capital responsibilities.
My approach to the other City infrastructure requirements are the same. I ask these questions when trying to assess scope:  1) what do we have, 2) what condition is it in, 3) have we replaced or repaired recently, 4) are we putting away money to recapitalize in the future?
The roads assessment has the city seriously looking at taking a bite of the elephant. Our roads are in need of help. Please keep checking the City Web Site for up-to-date FAQs as we answer Citizen questions.
Respectfully, your City Manager.

1 Comment

  1. Troy Davidson on February 11, 2020 at 1:02 pm

    I’ve had many conversations about the growth and roads of Choctaw. I fully support our growth,however, I agree our roads need a total upgrade. Keep up the good work Mayor Ross and city manager/ counsil

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