NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – The battle for Oklahomans fighting turnpike expansion in Norman continued Thursday at a speaker summit by Pike Off OTA, the grassroots organization that says they are committed to infrastructure, fiscal responsibility and reducing overreach of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
“It is an uphill battle, we know this, but we’re going to fight this every step of the way using every legal means possible,” said Ward 5 Norman City Council Member Rarchar Tortorello.
Thursday’s meeting followed the recent approval by the Oklahoma Transportation Commission to approve several routes expected to run through Cleveland and Oklahoma counties, and featured a conversation on eminent domain, potential environmental impacts, a recap of legislative efforts and an update on two lawsuits representing hundreds of residents.
In the July 11 meeting, the Oklahoma Transportation Commission voted 7-1 to approve the turnpike routes as part of the $5 billion, 15-year ACCESS Oklahoma plan.
Volunteers in attendance at the community summit told KFOR the path forward now is education and information.
However, a primary concern Thursday was a lack of representation for the District 3 Transportation Commissioner seat, representing Cleveland, Coal, Garvin, Hughes, Johnston, Lincoln, McClain, Okfuskee, Pontotoc, Pottawatomie and Seminole counties, saying the turnpike expansion plan will destroy hundreds of homes and kill wildlife.
The seat has been vacant since former commissioner, T.W. Shannon, stepped down to run for Sen. Jim Inhofe’s seat.
The currently planned routes are expansive and include a route that will start at the John Kilpatrick Turnpike at Highway 152, and running to I-44; along I-44 in the Tri City area of Newcastle, Blanchard and Tuttle, to the Kickapoo Turnpike; a third route follows I-35 down to Purcell.
In an email to KFOR Thursday, representatives for Oklahoma Transportation said impact studies for these routes have not started.
“It was devastating and extremely disappointing in that they voted to go ahead and move forward, despite the fact that the City of Norman, the Cleveland County, the citizens have all organized and said, ‘Please, please don’t build this turnpike,’” said Inger Giuffrida, Executive Director of Wildcare.
Giuffrida said the costs would “grossly” outweigh the benefits of this project.
“If you’re going to be destroying homes and upsetting the wildlife habitats and impacting water quality, not to have the commissioner that represents that very community present, it just seems obvious…like they shouldn’t need to be told,” she continued.
A spokesman for Speaker of the House Charles McCall, who is responsible for appointing a replacement for T.W. Shannon, said turnpike votes moved forward before anyone talked to them about the appointment.
“The speaker is required to make hundreds of appointments a year to several state boards and commissions. While this is a recent vacancy, it has been prioritized and will be filled soon. Nobody has advised the speaker’s office on why votes on this matter occurred before the vacancy was filled.”John Estus, Spokesman, Office of the Speaker, OK House of Representatives
In an email, Estus went on to say that none of the area’s elected legislative seats are vacant; rather, county and city elected officials in the area are also in office, representing citizens.
“Elected officials are the most accountable to and closest to the people, [and] the area’s representation via elected officials remains,” he stated.
A representative for the Oklahoma Transportation Cabinet acknowledged KFOR’s request for a response to the statement from the Office of the Speaker, but said they did not have adequate time to respond before this story aired during KFOR’s 10 p.m. broadcast.
Despite their challenges, the community said they were still hopeful, and resolved to keep fighting.
“We have people’s commitment and ingenuity,” said Giuffrida. “We have incredible commitment and leadership from the [Pike Off OTA] board of directors, as well as a whole slew of volunteers.
“Even though it feels like maybe it’s hopeless right now, it’s not,” she added.
“[Making our case is about] advocacy, advocacy, advocacy,” said Pike Off OTA attorney Rob Norman. “And we think our case is sinking in [and] we’re pretty confident that we’re going to prevail.”
Norman said the group plans to attend the next meeting of the Council of Bond Oversight, where they believe the Transportation Cabinet will try to get another bond issue approved.
He said they plan to object to the request.