I have often said that I truly believe Gary is one of the best-if not the best-DOT heads in the nation. Gary came to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation in 1965 when he started as an equipment operator and worked his way up to Division Engineer.
When Brad Henry, a Democrat, was elected Governor of Oklahoma in 2002, I called him and asked for only one thing: for him to keep Gary on as Director of ODOT. Fortunately for Oklahomans, he did. In 2009 Gary was appointed Transportation Secretary, a position he still holds, as well as serving concurrently as the Director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
I first realized just how great Gary was back in 2002 when a barge took out a 580 foot section of the I-40 bridge at Webber Falls. Sadly, 14 people lost their lives in that tragedy. The bridge fell on May 26th and, due to the excellent work of Gary, the bridge was reopened to traffic on July 29th. Think about that for a second: two spans of a bridge were replaced in just two months. Normally, a project of this magnitude takes an average of 13 years to complete-most of the delays are due to federal red tape and billions of dollars are wasted in taxpayer money.
We can deliver projects dramatically faster than we currently do while still protecting the environment. Reducing the time it takes to deliver transportation projects I know is a priority for all of us, which hopefully means we can get something meaningful done in the next highway bill.
I would also like to draw attention to Gary's concerns about EPA's proposal to revise the nation's air quality standards for ozone. I share his concerns. After much effort and cost, Oklahoma currently has no "nonattainment" areas. But because of EPA's ever-changing definition of "clean air," economic development - indeed, many of the very transportation system improvements and capacity expansions we contemplate today - is being threatened.
The nation's ozone standards are a prime example. EPA, in 2008, significantly tightened the standards as part of its statutory five year review. Yet the Obama Administration has made a political decision to revise that standard outside of the five-year review cycle. This creates tremendous confusion for state and local communities and businesses that have to meet the requirements.
The standards EPA is now considering could put as many as 15 of Oklahoma's counties into nonattainment status. Indeed, over 650 counties across the country could be in violation, even though many of them have what EPA considered "clean air" just two years ago.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on ideas that will make it easier, not harder, to improve our deteriorating infrastructure, create jobs, and strengthen our global competitiveness.