OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (KFOR) – The Council of Bond Oversight voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s request for a $200 million dollar line of credit with Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.
The request is expected to provide the OTA with funding for various projects under the ACCESS Oklahoma plan, a program consisting of several projects the state says will “expand and enhance toll roads throughout the state and add capacity to the system.”
The Council of Bond Oversight is made up of a five-member body responsible for reviewing and approving all financing requests by state agencies and authorities; a request for provisional approval of the Council of Bond Oversight was filed on March 23rd.
Several groups were in attendance at the meeting, including the Council, Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz, additional representatives from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, and resolute land and homeowners who could be affected by the current proposed routes, and are against expansion, particularly along areas south of the Oklahoma City metro area, Norman and down to Purcell.
“We’ve all worked our entire lives. We’ve built our homes, we’ve raised our families. We have put our souls and our hearts into our homes. And somebody has decided to come and just plow us down like we don’t exist. But they call this farm land. They said we’re nothing but rooftops, and we’re here to say we are not rooftops,” said Linda Barry, a resident in the Cinnamon Run addition of Norman’s Ward 5.
“We’re not giving up,” she added, saying, “We’re here to stand up as Americans, as Oklahomans, as citizens of Norman, as friends and neighbors in a community to protect it from being torn apart for no legitimate reason.”
However, the approval comes with a drawback for the agency.
Due to a newly filed lawsuit in the District Court of Cleveland County, for now, the OTA can move forward with their plans, but only in absentia of three planned routes through Cleveland County, along the South Extension, the East-West Connector and the Tri-City Connector.
The lawsuit alleges that the OTA has taken an “unauthorized” and “unlawful” approach to expansion that would destroy, alter or destroy thousands of homes or other property, in addition to leaving Oklahomans with a financial burden for projects its plaintiff’s claim the OTA has not proven are necessary.
Plaintiffs in the suit told KFOR Wednesday that they want a legal opinion on whether the highway plans are permissible, and they’re hoping the case goes all the way to the top.
“I was hoping they would deny it outright, [but] putting the conditions on [the bond approval] was a win,” said Michael Nash, president of Pike Off OTA, the grassroots organization established to help “re-establish control over our infrastructure, reinstitute fiscal responsibility, and reduce the overreach of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.”
The group says it’s garnered support from nearly 7,000 people who are against the turnpike across the state.
“Still, it accomplishes what we wanted to accomplish by stopping the funding for this, for the extensions for the foreseeable future,” he said, adding that he and others expected a challenge in the effort to perform a continual audit of OTA spending to make sure they’re in compliance with the conditions.
The lawsuit lists 24 plaintiffs in the suit, including Pike Off OTA, Inc.
“It’s really difficult to account for where the money is being spent, who is going to have oversight,” said Amy Cerato, a Norman resident, civil engineer and a plaintiff named in the suit, adding that she ultimately hopes for a favorable outcome if the case reaches the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court could come down and say you are not authorized for these routes. You must cease and desist and stop holding these homeowners’ hostage under your access,” she continued.
“What we wanted to do is come in here today and get the council to do what they do, say, you can’t have financing, [and] you can’t have a line of credit to fund and work on these three turnpikes that are running through the South Oklahoma City metro area, Norman and down to Purcell,” added Rob Norman, Esq., an attorney for the plaintiffs.
“Our lawsuit is about these three turnpikes being legally unauthorized. And we feel that the council put a stop to them to allow the courts and to allow the legislature to give us a solution,” he continued, while adding that it could take a legislative lift from lawmakers to make a significant impact.
“I actually think the idea that would be in their interest to to to get the courts to make a determination to get the legislature involved,” he said. “When the legislature hasn’t authorized you to put turnpikes in where you’re trying to put them, you need to get the legislature to say ‘we agree’ and vote those in.”
“I’m planning on behalf of my constituents to move forward on trying to create more transparency and accountable on part of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority,” said Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, and
also one of the lawmakers behind the SB1610, a legislative effort to require the OTA to produce environmental impact studies.
“[But] I do not want to give anybody false hope, because it’s an uphill battle,” he added.
In communication with KFOR Wednesday, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority also said it is aware of the lawsuit and is currently evaluating it, adding that the agency has developed a “detailed accounting tracking system for each project within the ACCESS Oklahoma program,” to account for money spent.
“There is no official rollout beyond the February 22 announcement,” said Jessica Brown in an email to the station. Brown serves as Director of the Strategic Communications Division for the Oklahoma Transportation Cabinet.
“OTA will proceed with work on the projects not related to the lawsuit. Those projects include widening the Turner and Will Rogers turnpikes, adding access points and enhance interchanges on existing toll roads, and improving lighting in many areas,” she added.