OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority announced Tuesday that work on a controversial turnpike plan will pause this week.
The OTA notified its board and consultants that all work on the 15-year, $5 billion Access Oklahoma plan will stop on Friday, April 14.
The agency said that it remains in a strong financial position, but it can’t continue funding work without a clear timetable for access to the bond market.
While many residents whose homes are threatened because of the project are celebrating the pause, the OTA stressed that this is just a stoppage and they do plan to resume their plans.
“On February 22nd of last year, I found out that my home and ten acres was directly in the path of the southern extension,” said Norman resident Amy Cerato, who lives on the 900 block of 80th Ave Southeast.
Since then, she said she’s lived in fear that the OTA would displace her home with its plan to build three new turnpike routes.
The proposed expansion project would put a new turnpike along Indian Hills Road and connect Newcastle to Norman. Part of the plan is to also extend the Kickapoo Turnpike west of Lake Thunderbird, essentially connecting the Kickapoo Turnpike to Purcell.
On Tuesday, OTA announced it’s stopping its plans on Friday. Officials said the stoppage includes work on the Turner Turnpike, as well as the widening and interchange additions on other turnpikes.
This was a relief to potentially hundreds of homeowners who could be affected and have been protesting for over a year.
“I feel really good. I feel that citizens have been heard,” said Tassie Hirschfeld, who lives near Southeast 84th Avenue and Cedar Lane Road in Norman. “The turnpike would have been my neighbor. I would have had huge disruption during construction, and it would have destroyed a lot of the value of my home.”
Cerato is also feeling good.
“I feel like this is one of many steps and one of many wins that we’ve had that will hopefully ensure that the Oklahoma Turnpike is finally made to do things correctly in a transparent manner and to engage in sound and ethical engineering practices,” she expressed.
Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation and OTA Executive Director Tim Gatz said the agency has no financial issues but needs the bond market to fund the project.
“The plan is simply delayed until the point that we can see our way clear to go to the bond markets,” he explained.
He said they first need to get through some legal issues. A group opposing the turnpike expansion, Pike Off OTA, has sued the OTA, and that case is pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“We’ve gone as far as we can go paying as we go,” Gatz said. “As the Turnpike Authority always does, we need now to get into the revenue bond market to be able to progress further. And so, we’re calling the stoppage until we can resolve some of the unknowns that are precluding us from getting into the bond markets, and then we’ll advance forward.”
Also, Oklahoma Attorney General Getner Drummond has also requested a state audit of the OTA.
AG Drummond weighed in on the announcement Tuesday:
“I am aware of the Turnpike Authority’s announcement to stop all work on toll road construction and improvements. 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.”
Pike Off OTA also released the following statement:
“Pike OFF OTA is encouraged by the announcement that the Oklahoman Turnpike Authority has finally decided to stop work on the ACCESS Oklahoma program. It is neither lawful nor appropriate for the OTA to continue to work on the legally unauthorized East West Connector, South Extension, or Tri-City Connector proposed new turnpikes routes. Pike Off OTA has never been opposed to the lawful, financially responsible pursuit of maintaining and improving existing turnpikes projects.
To the extent the OTA may currently have a problem with funding maintenance and improvements on existing turnpikes, the OTA has brought this problem on itself. The OTA has willfully failed and refused to comply with the Open Meetings Act. It has also failed and refused to provide the Council of Bond Oversight, the Courts, or the Citizens of Oklahoma with any meaningful disclosure of how ACCESS Oklahoma bond issues would be allocated to improvements on existing turnpikes, as opposed to building these new turnpike routes that are not legally allowed under the Turnpike Enabling Act.
Instead, the OTA has chosen to continue to obscure their financial and business practices by inappropriately insisting on bundling maintenance, safety and improvement projects on their existing turnpikes with three legally unauthorized, contested, and unnecessary new turnpike routes. This $5 billion, all-or-nothing approach has been an exercise in questionable judgment and lack of transparency from the beginning. If the OTA is truly putting the safety of its patrons first, why has the OTA prioritized the pursuit of questionable, contested new alignments over much needed maintenance and improvement obligations on existing toll roads?
It is very disturbing to hear that the OTA apparently cannot pay for the safety and improvement of its existing toll roads without taking on billions of dollars in additional debt through the bond market. As Attorney General Gentner Drummond has stated, this calls into question the leadership and cash flow management of the OTA.
We are looking forward to what the State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s investigative audit may reveal about the OTA. It is time for all Oklahomans to insist on transparency, accountability, and lawful conduct from our government agencies.”Amy Cerato, President of Pike Off OTA