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Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gatz Credits Strong Team for State’s Success

by: Debra Wood
Secretary Gatz joins regional partners to break ground for the new Gilcrease Expressway western loop in Tulsa. The five-mile long tollway includes 22 bridges and four major interchanges. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation
Secretary Gatz joins regional partners to break ground for the new Gilcrease Expressway western loop in Tulsa. The five-mile long tollway includes 22 bridges and four major interchanges. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation
A consummate transportation professional, Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz credits his teams of employees, contractors, engineers and others with the state’s success in keeping Oklahoma moving.

“When I talk about the transportation team in Oklahoma, I want to emphasize that includes our construction contractors, our consulting engineers and the people who work here,” Gatz says. “We are all in this together. We have tremendous horsepower and tremendous resources in Oklahoma. There is nothing we cannot accomplish. We rise to every challenge.”

Gatz praises the teamwork, the unique relationships the agency maintains with private sector entities, the people who have gone before him and the investments they made in transportation infrastructure improvements. He plans to build on those accomplishments and advance performance metrics, such as safety and capacity, in part by entrusting his colleagues.

“Anything that is accomplished in Oklahoma is about the team,” he says. “It’s the workforce, the boots on the ground people that make this thing go forward. I couldn’t be prouder.”

Hands Off Approach
Gatz says he considers it his responsibility to make sure employees have everything they need to do their jobs, while at the same time not seeming heavy handed.

“I do what I can to empower them and try to stay out of their way,” he says. “We have a family in transportation. I try to make our people feel that they are part of something that is bigger than all of us.”

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Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt tapped Gatz to serve as Transportation Secretary in 2019. He holds responsibility for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT), the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, and the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission. General aviation airports are an important part of the state’s transportation capabilities.

“Aeronautics and aerospace are one of our largest economic factors, to the excess of $40 billion per year,” he says. “Aerospace is important to our state and for our future.”

Transportation, not just air, plays a significant role in economic growth. Businesses want to easily travel or move goods.

“What that translates to is access, which can be waterways and ports, to freight railroad to our highway system,” Gatz says. “Oklahoma offers all of that.”

Gatz worked in a number of positions at ODOT, during his 27-year tenure, including Division Manager of the Project Management Division, where he spearheaded the development of the department’s eight-year construction work plan, and Deputy Director. He also served as Director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority for three years. He now manages a transportation system with about 3,000 full-time employees, many long-tenured, and a more than $2 billion budget.

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“Our transportation system supports our economy, our citizens and the opportunity to grow,” he says. “What we really care about is taking care of the people we serve.”

Transportation Priorities
Secretary Gatz has several priorities for each of the departments he has responsibility.

“At ODOT, our No. 1 priority is the stewardship of the taxpayer dollars we are entrusted with, and the care and the maintenance of the Oklahoma’s largest asset – our transportation system – and rolled up within that is the safety of the traveling public that uses the transportation system,” Gatz says.

ODOT monitors the condition of the highway roads and bridges, gathers data to understand infrastructure needs, and creates investment strategies within the resources available to maintain those assets.

As transportation evolves, Gatz has his eye on autonomous vehicles, public transit, and rail service as well.

“They all are important aspects of transportation, and how we move goods, services and people,” Gatz says. “What we see happening today is different than 20 years ago. Expectations of the traveling public are different and keeping up with that evolution is a priority.”

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Entities under Gatz leadership are modernizing to ensure they can meet the needs of a changing world. The department is looking out to the next 20 or 30 years.

“We are focused on trying to create a transportation cabinet and the organizational structure necessary to support transportation delivery of all types in the future,” he says. “We’re taking a hard look at how we are organized.”

That may include merging key areas of ODOT and the Turnpike Authority, which could boost efficiencies in government operations, he says. In 1995, a state commission suggested combining the agencies to eliminate duplication of facilities. However, both entities have separate funding, tax supported monies for the DOT and bonds and tolls for the turnpike.

“I think there is a tremendous opportunity to expand on the Department of Transportation’s and Turnpike Authority’s history of leveraging resources and sharing services,” Gatz says. “We will look to identify opportunities to operate efficiently.”

Major Accomplishments
Gatz has demonstrated success in building alliances with others to get things done. The west leg of the Gilcrease Expressway in Tulsa serves as an example. The improvement has been on the area’s master plan since 1961, but never started, until this year.

“We’re working with a lot of partners, and this is something we are proud of,” Gatz says.

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The $360 million project is a partnership among the turnpike authority, the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the Indian Nations Council of Governments, ODOT, a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan from the federal government and also private financing.

“We’ve come together for a five-mile extension on the west side of Tulsa to be able to solve a transportation problem that’s never been able to be solved before,” Gatz says. “It’s a complicated five miles with a major river crossing.”

The state used a build, finance model, with a private contractor bringing initial financing.

“That’s a creative solution we are proud of,” he says. “We are excited to be a part of it.”

The expressway project is part of the state’s Driving Forward initiative, which aims to increase capacity and safety. In addition to this project, the initiative includes major interchange improvements in urban areas to improve flow.

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“We’re trying to stay ahead of our traffic growth,” Gatz explains.

Gatz calls tolling an important tool in the toolbox, something he gained an appreciation for while at the Turnpike Authority. Many turnpike facilities help provide critical transportation routes that would not have been built without tolling dollars.

“The opportunity to be part of the Turnpike Authority and gain that understanding has benefited me tremendously in my role as Cabinet Secretary,” Gatz says.

Gatz says he is pleased with the progress the department has made.

“I’m proud of our agencies,” Gatz says. “Anything I do as Cabinet Secretary is a reflection of the workforce. They are the people getting things done. I try to be a leader who makes sure people are empowered.”

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