OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – On Tuesday, the State Supreme Court validated the bonds requested by the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) to begin building new toll roads.
The agency says that money is necessary for surveys and design of a new turnpike in Cleveland County.
The ACCESS Oklahoma project was put on hold in April after several legal roadblocks, including an allegation of violating the Open Meeting Act and Attorney General Gentner Drummond requesting an investigative audit into the OTA and its ACCESS project actions.
The agency said that it couldn’t continue funding work without a clear timetable for access to the bond market.
The State Supreme Court later ruled the OTA did not violate the Open Meeting Act and Pike Off OTA failed to prove the OTA lacked “statutory authorization to construct the South Extension” and had “exceeded its statutory authorization by seeking an additional bond issue to complete the loop.”
Around that same time, the Supreme Court justices gave the OTA until June 15 to answer some of their questions, including why it didn’t ask the Council of Bond Oversight for an extension on its plan approval and why the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation denied its request to use some federal title lands in the project.
In the OTA’s June filing, its lawyers argued that allowing the Council’s approval to expire was intentional and the authority would continue to work with the Bureau of Reclamation to reroute the turnpike to avoid use of the federal lands.
Now, the State Supreme Court has decided the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority can resubmit its bond request to the Council of Bond Oversight and resume its negotiations with the Bureau of Reclamation.
“This bond validation creates certainty for OTA, its bondholders and citizens who now know without doubt that these final three legs of the Oklahoma City Outer Loop meet the legislative intent to provide reliever routes through the metro area and fight increasing traffic congestion,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz. “This allows one of the most ambitious state transportation plans in Oklahoma history to move forward. It will increase safety and travel reliability, provide new connections to communities and improve traffic flow by integrating with the state highway system.”
The Secretary of Transportation, Tim Gatz said he’s thankful to the Oklahoma Supreme Court for its ruling on Tuesday.
“We understand the gravity of the impacts of the new routes to homeowners and businesses in the pathway. We pledge, as we always have, to work diligently and with care with those impacted,” added Gatz.
Although the Supreme Court’s ruling allows OTA to move forward, Gatz said ACCESS Oklahoma’s pause hasn’t officially been lifted.
“To be clear, we are at the very beginning stage of this long range plan. Construction in the Norman area specifically likely will be several years away from today,” explained Gatz. “A lot of times you’re going to have differing needs among the property owners. Some will want to stay as long as they can. Others may want to go ahead and move forward with or right away transaction. We will try to accommodate everything that we can.”
Gatz told KFOR its unknown how many property owners may be affected by the construction.
Moving forward, the goal is to not only work with property owners, but to also ensure the state’s highway system continues to effectively and safely function.
According to court records involved with the Supreme Court’s decision, traffic counts have steadily increased for the last three decades.
For example, in 1987, the daily traffic count through the I-35/I-40 corridor was approximately 50,000 vehicles. In 2022, the daily traffic count had increased to 150,000, producing five accidents per day. It’s projected that there will be 300,000 vehicles traversing this major economic corridor by 2050.
“The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s mission is to interface seamlessly with the state highway system, thereby providing a choice for safe, convenient and efficient passage in a user funded transportation network. Our goal is to provide safe infrastructure while maintaining the lowest toll rate that we can for our customers,” shared Gatz.
There is still a pending taxpayer lawsuit and an ongoing investigative audit against OTA, but Gatz said he doesn’t see either hindering the progress of ACCESS Oklahoma.
Pike Off OTA has also voiced concerns over a lack of transparency, but Gatz said OTA has been and always will be transparent with Oklahomans.
“I think we have went through an incredible effort to make sure that we put every bit of information that we could out to the public so they could understand what Access Oklahoma is about,” stated Gatz.
Gatz said he doesn’t see the Supreme Court ruling as a victory, but more so as just another step in the process.
OTA officials say in the coming weeks, OTA engineers and consultants will resume their work on the ACCESS Oklahoma plan, including working with federal, state and local partners, to develop the best solutions for the three newly validated routes as well as the entire ACCESS program.
The court says any petition for rehearing on this matter must be filed within 20 days of its opinion.
For more information on ACCESS Oklahoma, OTA suggests emailing info@AccessOklahoma.com or calling 1-844-562-2237.