Capital Improvement Planning in Tulsa:

Project Prioritization and Internal Cultural Change for Fiscally Sustainable Infrastructure

By Gary G. Hamer, AICP

Recent infrastructure failures and the depleted Highway Trust Fund have generated a greater sense of urgency and enlivened the debate regarding the country's infrastructure maintenance challenges. Cities across the country are struggling with staggering maintenance burdens that by some accounts exceed several trillion dollars.

This case examines Tulsa's efforts to examine and prioritize its infrastructure maintenance needs (which exceed $4 billion), establish a continuing dialogue regarding fiscally sustainable infrastructure, and assess how the roles of the various stakeholders in the resource allocation process can shape the physical environment. Tulsa's challenge has been compounded by an outdated comprehensive plan, decentralized planning authority, and limited revenue sources.

Recently, the word sustainability has been used loosely to describe a number of initiatives and has been attached to various political, corporate, and civic campaigns. For the purpose of this case, the concept of fiscal sustainability is defined as the ability to meet current maintenance and service-level demands considering the long-term costs associated with government operations, current and future revenue limitations, and political pressure to continually provide greater levels of government services.


Situated along the Arkansas River, Tulsa is located in northeastern Oklahoma. The area's river and rolling hills provide a great contrast to the city's art deco-inspired downtown. There are numerous recreational and cultural opportunities, including a renowned ballet company, contemporary and Western art museums, a regional trail system, quality minor league sports venues, and a number of high quality entertainment districts. Tulsa also boasts very strong historic neighborhoods, many of which trace their roots to the golden days of the oil boom.

Location Map
Figure 1    
Location Map

The City of Tulsa, like many municipalities across the U.S., is struggling with a substantial backlog of deferred facility and infrastructure maintenance while also dealing with expansion demands placed on it by fringe development. Tulsa's roughly 390,000 residents are spread over approximately 200 square miles. The city is characterized by its grid street pattern, low-density single-family development, commercial development at the nodes, and short commute times as evidenced by the more than 75,000 people who commute into the city daily from the suburbs (U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000).

Contained in the 200 square miles within the city limits are 1,200 lane miles of arterial streets and more than 3,000 lane miles of residential streets. Deferred street maintenance is estimated at well over $2.6 billion. In November 2008, voters authorized a $451 million sales tax and general obligation bond program specifically targeted at improving the city's poor road conditions. The passage of that proposal is a vital fact, in that road improvement consumes the majority of the available capital resources through 2014. Maintaining this commitment beyond 2014 and addressing some limited street expansion priorities would consume all of the available resources over the next twenty years.

Resources vs. Prioritized Needs
Figure 2    
Resources vs. Prioritized Needs

The city operates its own water and sewer system, supplying residents and suburban customers with potable water and wastewater treatment. Water is provided through two water treatment plants and a distribution network that totals more than 2,200 miles. The wastewater treatment system is composed of four treatment plants and an extensive collection system. Both the water and sewage treatment facilities originally were constructed with a substantial contribution from the federal government. These plants are now aging.

Tulsa is known regionally as green country, which is demonstrated in the 125 city-owned and operated parks. Mohawk Park is the city's largest at more than 2,800 acres, while Gun Boat South Park's 0.2 acres make it the smallest. The city offers patrons an array of park services and programs, ranging from art instruction to T-ball leagues. The parks system is substantial, aging, and very maintenance-intensive. A number of the city's park facilities are now beyond repair.

Unlike in other states, Oklahoma municipalities are almost solely reliant on sales taxes to fund their operations and a portion of their capital needs. Tulsa levies $.02 per dollar to support operations, and $.01 per dollar for capital needs. This rate has remained unchanged since 1980.

Because of the close correlation of sales taxes to cyclical economic disruptions, the city's quality of life has suffered through numerous budget cuts. Municipalities generally supplement their capital needs with voter-authorized general obligation bonds, which are retired from a property tax levy. In Oklahoma, however, school districts, vocational institutions, county governments, and numerous other local taxing jurisdictions use the property tax to fund their operations. Local governments are resource constrained and in direct competition with other taxing jurisdictions for access to the available pool of resources.

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