Tulsa Has a Traffic Problem: How Leadership has Misled the Community into Investing in Inequitable Infrastructure

by Contributing Writer Kolby Webster

“Good streets are more than a convenience – they are an economic necessity,” reads Bynum’s re-election site. However, in a city as sprawled as Tulsa, the attitude of entitlement to our vast and expensive street network and the hubris to expand it creates a false sense of due diligence and comes at the cost of our city’s collective well-being and a balanced budget. Tulsa is over 200 square miles and barely has a 400,000 resident tax base with 4,348 lane miles of city streets. We have a problematically massive city with so few people to chip in to maintain and support the existing infrastructure. We are literally building a city that we can not afford to maintain.

Back in November 2019, Tulsans voted on ‘Improve Our Tulsa,’ an infrastructure package of $639 million that gave due consideration to our outdated infrastructure by using property taxes, sales taxes, and bonds. Unfortunately, the bulk of the consideration and funding was given to fixing our sprawling and unsustainable street network as opposed to projects that have an actual return on investment and better our lives and those of our neighbors. Yet, Bynum spearheaded these improvements, which are slated to spend hundreds of millions to maintain, rehabilitate, and widen streets across the city over the next 6 ½ years.

A few notable projects being the Gilcrease Museum Rd. – Pine St. to Admiral Blvd. expansion at $12 million, 81st St. S. – Harvard Ave. to Yale Ave. at $15 million, 91st St. S – Memorial Dr. to Mingo Rd. at $10.7 million, and the ongoing botched Yale expansion between 81st and 91st, which has reached nearly $50 million on its own. However, the Yale disaster is another investigation entirely but goes to show that these are just upfront costs which continue to multiply with maintenance and rehabilitation as they degrade over the years. 

Bynum himself explained how street widening is an expensive and often neglected investment in this presentation while expressing the scale and numbers to residents across the city as a part of the Improve Our Tulsa community input meetings:

Today the geographic footprint of the city of Tulsa is larger than San Francisco, Boston, D.C. and Miami combined! And to have the population base…the number of people per square mile to support the kind of infrastructure they have in those cities we would need 2.3 million people in Tulsa. We have 400,000. And so that’s one of the great challenges we face. We have so much infrastructure spaced over such a broad range and we don’t have as many people per square mile to pay for it.

With his emphasis on data as part of his initial platform, it is odd Bynum pushed residents to make the decision to invest in these economically unsound infrastructure projects. Notably, no community members were actually allowed to voice their input at the meetings. Comment cards were handed out and select cards were chosen to be read onstage by the mayor, council or city staff on stage. Those  3 miles worth of widening projects to alleviate the commute times for a very small sum of Tulsans even though it is all residents of Tulsa that paid the taxes for these so-called “improvements come to a total of $37 million.  In all actuality, street widening does not actually alleviate commute times. Street widening seems like the no-brainer solution to traffic when in reality it is a false assumption to operate from that all traffic problems can, or need, to be solved by adding more roadway. In reality, solving traffic problems makes little sense when it takes 20-30 minutes to get across Tulsa no matter where or when, excluding a few hours in the day. There are also some exceptions where the city has allowed ridiculously unsustainable and dense developments to happen where the streets were never going to be able to withstand the resident capacity.  

We have real issues that need to be solved in this city that could certainly use between $37 million and $427 million to fix. Our city is struggling to get out of a funding structure that only permits the use of property and sales taxes to improve our city. Oddly, we are not facilitating more small businesses that pay taxes and prop up our community with entrepreneurs and, instead, are giving tax breaks to companies that don’t even pay taxes. Leadership as it is in Tulsa is financing the type of infrastructure that literally separates communities, makes them less safe, and drains economies to the tune of nearly $300 million for an extension to the Gilcrease highway. This extension, which was proposed over 50 years ago, has been criticized for decades. Yet, work continues when data is hardly available to justify its expense. The City of Tulsa has $22 million of backlogged sidewalk repairs and plenty more needed in sidewalk connections. Tulsa has continuously spent money on infrastructure that increases traffic and costs to maintain traffic when instead it could be creating infrastructure that increases foot traffic to local businesses that truly provide for our communities.

Over $50 million is going to the police for new police vehicles and a new police helicopter. More entrepreneurship opportunities and less blighted neighborhood infrastructure would be a better investment for our community at large. All of Bynum’s street projects he seems to boast about on his re-election site invariably hurt Tulsa more than it helps with one exception: Tulsa’s revamped Bus Rapid transit service route. Instead of increasing the cost of living in Tulsa by necessitating that Tulsans own a car to live here and exacerbating our already dire inequities, we’ve begun investing in a robust public transit system. However, the BRT and Tulsa Transit still need major updates and a complete network to fully encompass such an auto-developed city. Tulsans of all walks of life desperately need a functional and inclusive public transit system, as any world class city would need to effectively serve its citizens.

Bynum’s plan is misleading the population of Tulsa when it comes to their understandably misguided beliefs in street widening and the economic sustainability of spending on this type of car-centric infrastructure. The viable alternative is having what looks and feels like a truly accessible, vibrant, and thriving world-class city. A city built for people. However, as it stands, Bynum’s streets policy seems to be more geared towards financially subsidizing our suburban neighbors’ lifestyles and relieving their commute times. Unfortunately, these developments have been happening so long that drivers feel entitled to this spending being attached to their car ownership and could care less about their neighbors, the local economy, or safety as long as their commute is seemingly shortened .

In fact, this neglect, or willful ignorance, to utilize best practices when it comes to the built environment of the city itself makes a majority of his platform, especially around “Tulsa’s streets,” fall flat and wholly ineffective. With Bynum allowing this type of highway development and road expansion to take top spending priority without dutiful public engagement or consulting knowledgeable individuals in his office, he is exacerbating our city’s inequities around segregation, access, and health outcomes at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens.  

Photo credit: Joseph Rushmore

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