OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Seven out of nine members of the House Transportation Committee voted to pass Senate Bill 1610, Thursday, which focuses on turnpike expansion along the South Extension in Cleveland County. Many are questioning why the legislature was not informed until after the project was announced to the public.
Lawmakers said the bill was born following a lack of communication from the OTA about the long-range Access Oklahoma highway infrastructure plan.
“I found out about this turnpike through constituents that called me while I was working and that to me was unacceptable,” said Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, told KFOR Thursday. His district represents Cleveland and Pottawatomie Counties.
The bill aims to slow down planned turnpike expansion through the Access Oklahoma project by requiring the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) to conduct more studies on the South Extension, addressing a myriad of topics, including the specific impact that the proposed route would have on residents and businesses and whether any alternate routes were considered by the OTA.
OTA’s legislative liaison attended the meeting, fielding questions around the project’s timeline, right-of-way acquisition and estimates on the number of home and landowners that could be affected.
“We are very concerned with the public and the rollout and we acknowledge that it could have been handled better,” said Jordan Perdue. “We are trying to be as responsive as possible.”
Jessica Brown, who serves as the Director of Strategic Communications for the Oklahoma Transportation Cabinet, also acknowledged the bungled communication, while stating that the agency had communicated with the governor and OTA board members prior to unveiling the proposals. She was not in attendance for Thursday’s vote.
“I understand that legislator laws want to be the ones who tell their constituents about things like this. And that’s typically the process that we follow under this plan,” she continued, adding that they would make plans to improve communication for the future.
If progress on the bill moves forward and the additional studies are done, the OTA would also be required to provide a report with the findings to Gov. Kevin Stitt, the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate at least 180 days prior to receiving the bond financing for construction.
In pressing for the bill, Rep. Sterling insisted that he wanted transparency and accountability from the OTA, but denied he’s shutting the door on progress.
“I understand progress needs to be made and we need to move forward…it affects our economy, it affects our state, also, as a whole,” said Sterling. “[But] I need to make sure that my constituents voices are heard both for and against.
“It matters. That’s where you live, so it matters,” added Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa. “People need to know if their homes are going to be destroyed, they need to know if they’re going to be displaced and they need to know well in advance what the plan is. They need to be planned with and not planned for.”
Representative Denise Crosswhite Hader, R-Piedmont, who voted against the measure, questioned if the bill had the potential for overreach.
“Do you share my concerns that this puts us back into the legislature overstating their authority?” she asked Rep. Sterling.
“If everything is on the up and up – and everything is transparent and accountable – why shouldn’t they be able to handle that level of scrutiny,” he responded.