This is the second installment in our three-part “Revolving Door” series about how cronyism in state DOTs leads to wasteful highway building. The first part profiled Ohio DOT chief Jerry Wray, who has switched back and forth between working directly for the asphalt industry and shoveling money to the asphalt industry as a public official.
Like Jerry Wray, Oklahoma DOT Director Gary Ridley has split his career between public office and lobbying on behalf of the asphalt industry. He started out in the mid-1960s, working as an equipment officer for the DOT. He climbed several rungs on the ladder and then left in 1997 to lead the Oklahoma Asphalt Paving Association, before returning to the department in 2001 as director of operations. In 2009, he was appointed to the top position in the agency.
As head of ODOT, Gary Ridley, a former asphalt lobbyist, helped destroy a rail yard that had been prepared for redevelopment. Photo: News on 6
The Oklahoma Asphalt Pavement Association made $3,000 in contributions to Governor Brad Henry’s reelection campaign in 2006, three years before Ridley’s appointment, and then donated $1,000 to the campaign of current Governor Mary Fallin in 2010. She had reappointed Ridley shortly after her confirmation.
Those are pretty small amounts in the world of political campaign money. But there are a lot of cozy ties between the road lobby and top politicians in Oklahoma, and Ridley is deeply embedded in the state’s industry-friendly culture. One of Ridley’s predecessors as ODOT director, Neal McCaleb, also worked as a lobbyist for the road industry, sandwiched between two terms as transportation secretary. McCaleb, reportedly a close political ally of Ridley, is now president of a road lobbying group called Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation. (TRUST — get it?)
Upon Ridley’s reappointment, McCaleb, acting as a representative of TRUST, called him the “best transportation director in the state’s history.” Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, one of the chief architects of the new transportation bill, MAP-21, went further, calling Ridley “the best secretary of transportation in the country.” Inhofe, a well-known climate change denier, is a political darling of the oil and gas industry and fervent opponent of federal programs that support biking and walking.
Sure enough, Inhofe trotted Ridley out to testify before Congress on behalf of the more backwards proposals for the transportation bill last July. His testimony was a direct appeal to exempt states from requirements to invest in biking and walking:
This country’s CORE infrastructure is in a deplorable condition. Therefore, we support the ability for States to carefully scrutinize, prioritize and direct transportation funding that may be available for peripheral projects and programs.
Programs that mandate the commitment of dedicated transportation funding to recreational and fringe activities such as bicycle and pedestrian trails, complete streets, landscaping and historic preservation should be vigorously reviewed. If community livability projects and other similar programs are determined to be critically important to the viability and prosperity of the Nation, other funding mechanisms should be identified and the programs should be funded separately from core transportation infrastructure.
Tom Elmore, executive director of the Oklahoma City-based North American Transportation Institute, said it is an open secret that ODOT is focused as much, if not more, on serving the highway lobby as the people of the Sooner State. He calls Ridley “the P.E. with no degree,” since Ridley does not have a college degree, but was awarded a certificate as a Professional Engineer because he passed a test. (The same test is no longer sufficient for the credential.)
“ODOT and the highway lobby are one and the same,” Elmore said. “It’s very difficult to tell these days who is working for ODOT and who is working for the contractors because there is a such a revolving door.”