Saying that ongoing litigation and a requested audit are preventing the agency from entering the bond market for financing, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is pausing its massive $5 billion plan to expand turnpikes in and around the state’s largest metro areas. The OTA’s director, Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz, relayed his agency’s decision to its board and hired consultants in a memo today.
“As you are aware, we continue to await a bond validation decision from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which is paramount to progressing the comprehensive ACCESS Oklahoma plan. I have mentioned several times, including during the recent board meeting, that our continued ACCESS Oklahoma project work would be impacted or even stopped due to our inability to enter the bond market,” Gatz wrote in the memo (embedded below). “Other factors that are impacting our ability to enter the bond market include ongoing litigation initiated by those opposed to ACCESS Oklahoma’s new routes, and an impending investigative audit by the state auditor and inspector. The unclear resolution dates to all of these factors led to this difficult decision.”
Gatz said OTA’s financial position is overall positive, and he emphasized a need to plan for future transportation needs to support the state’s population growth and economic activity, which involves significant truck traffic to and from Mexico and Texas.
“Despite the tremendous transportation needs across the state, I feel it is prudent to take this difficult step,” Gatz wrote. “This is an unfortunate decision that the OTA does not take lightly due to the critical nature of the ACCESS Oklahoma plan and the effect it will have on all our consultants and their employees as well as many Oklahoma communities and businesses that rely on these necessary transportation improvements. While these delays slow progress for the state, it doesn’t eliminate the need for these critical transportation enhancements that will improve safety and the quality of life for all Oklahomans.”
A case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court regarding approval of OTA’s requested bonding proposal is pending, and the agency’s press release referenced that as one issue that led to Tuesday’s decision. Last year, a Cleveland County District Court judge ruled that OTA violated the state Open Meeting Act by describing its prior actions ambiguously on an improperly amended agenda, which forced the OTA Board to reapprove its plan in January. OTA challenged that ruling, and the Supreme Court has accepted jurisdiction on the matter.
Turnpike project opponents encouraged by decision
Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Turnpike Authority announced the ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike expansion plan in February 2022, saying the proposal — which includes expanding the Will Rogers Turnpike and much of the John Kilpatrick Turnpike to six lanes while adding major new legs north and east of Norman — will have a “generational impact.”
But the proposal immediately drew backlash and opposition from property owners, predominantly in the areas around Norman most affected by the proposed turnpike expansions.
“These people’s lives will be turned upside down to slightly improve commute times,” Inger Giuffrida, executive director of WildCare, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in Noble, said at the Capitol in March 2022.
Tuesday, leaders of the opposition group Pike Off OTA celebrated the agency’s decision to halt work by Friday.
“Pike OFF OTA is ecstatic that the Turnpike Authority has finally decided to stop work on the ACCESS program,” said Amy Cerato, a Pike Off OTA leader and civil engineering professor at the University of Oklahoma. “They were moving ahead with designing and paying for routes that aren’t even authorized legislatively while still waiting on the Supreme Court to make that final decision.”
Cerato said OTA already has legislative authority to widen the existing Turner, Will Rogers, Kilpatrick and Gilcrease turnpikes. But she argued that the agency lacks the proper authority to implement its planned routes north and east of Norman, as well as the proposed tri-city leg to the west.
“They stopped the whole thing because they are out of money, but they (previously) made the decision to continue on the three contested routes,” she said. “They could continue on the other four routes had they dropped these three from the beginning.”
The proposed east Norman loop would connect I-35 north of Purcell to the Kickapoo Turnpike near Newalla, and Cerato said it “would run right through my living room.”
“The community has come together and has fought off the biggest bully in the state, and I think this is the first time in 70 years that the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has ever lost or had to stop a proposed turnpike after they have already paid to have it designed,” Cerato said. “So I think we are doing Oklahoma a service by putting the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority in check and trying to get guard rails installed in our constitution.”
AG’s audit request a factor as well
The Turnpike Authority’s announcement Tuesday comes amid renewed scrutiny of the agency’s finances.
On March 15, new Attorney General Gentner Drummond requested an investigative audit of OTA, a call that has been championed by some politicians as far back as the 2002 gubernatorial race. During that campaign, Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson questioned why the state’s toll roads have never been paid off. Richardson renewed his questions and criticisms when he ran for governor in 2018, promising to request an investigative audit of the agency if elected.
Although Richardson’s political aspirations fell short, Drummond attended a Pike Off OTA rally on March 27 and told the assembled crowd that property rights are important.
“It is no secret to government officials that my administration stands for openness and transparency, and that is what I believe we were seeking,” Drummond said. “We all stand for private property rights. We all stand for limited government, we all stand for the opportunity to be heard and understood and our objections to be raised. And I’m proud to have called for the first investigative audit of the OTA in its history.”
In terms of property rights, the turnpike expansion proposals involve significant acquisitions of land for the planned routes, and one early deal struck by the agency has already made headlines.
In March 2022, soon after the ACCESS Oklahoma program had been announced, OTA staff met with Rep. Sherri Conley (R-Newcastle) and ultimately agreed to purchase her home in the path of one of the turnpike legs. According to reporting from Steve Lackmeyer of The Oklahoman, Conley’s property was purchased for more than $100,000 above its assessed value. A pool and 15 pecan trees were added into the valuation, according to the report.
Drummond released a statement following OTA’s announcement.
“I am aware of the Turnpike Authority’s announcement to stop all work on toll road construction and improvements,” Drummond said. “This is a concerning development that causes me to question the leadership and cash flow management of this critical agency. While it is unclear what the future holds for OTA, I am certain that the investigative audit I have ordered is needed now more than ever.”
In the agency’s press release Tuesday, Gatz said Drummond’s audit request was also a factor in his decision, but he said OTA is still focused on alleviating traffic congestion in the state.
“Once these roadblocks are resolved and a path to the bond market is cleared, I am confident we will resume ACCESS Oklahoma and begin moving forward on behalf of the people of Oklahoma,” Gatz said.
The Association of Oklahoma General Contractors’ director said his group is “disappointed” that the ACCESS proposal has been halted.
“While we understand that the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has made a prudent decision, we cannot ignore the fact that the traveling public will be impacted by this halt,” said AOGC director Bobby Stem. “The increase in preventable accidents and lives lost due to dangerous and congested roads is a real concern for all of us. As a community, we must stay committed to improving the safety of all Oklahomans. We hope that the legal cases will be resolved quickly, and the OTA can resume work on the ACCESS Oklahoma program as soon as possible. In the meantime, we encourage everyone to stay vigilant on the roads and prioritize safety at all times.”
(Update: This article was updated at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 11, to include additional information about the OTA’s appeal of a district court ruling and Drummond’s statement about the day’s announcement.)