OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Plans for Oklahoma Turnpike expansion continue to cause concern for many people across the state.
The mounting critiques come after number of recent challenges and lawsuits to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s plans for a multi-year, multi-million dollar highway infrastructure improvement plan it says will help with congestion on Interstate 35.
Consequently, many who oppose the project took part in a 2022 Interim Study Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Capitol, to examine the need for creating a legislative task force for the OTA, assess prior and current performance, and to propose several recommended strategic initiatives, including efforts to “create appropriate boundaries, ensure due diligence [and] enabling a toll-free future”, while also establishing the following measures for:
- Turnpike Enabling Act
- Sound Engineering Policy and Procedure
- Financial Practices
- Property Rights
- Key Stakeholder Engagement
“The Turnpike Authority must return to its original mandate, maintain its infrastructure, fulfill its obligations, and return its roadways to the state and its citizens,” read a document outlining the strategic initiatives of Tuesday’s interim study.
Tuesday’s effort was sponsored by Senator Rob Standridge, R-Norman, and the Senate Transportation Committee.
The agenda, additional details and a replay of the meeting can be found here.
Standridge previously sponsored a bill to slow down a planned turnpike impacting thousands of Norman.
Much of the consternation has been focused on routes through Cleveland County and the City of Norman, which recently filed a brief opposing the state agency’s request before the Oklahoma Supreme Court to approve bonds for the project along the eastern portion of the region.
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority previously said the money was necessary for the design and construction of the anticipated new turnpike in Cleveland County; however, the controversy continues to impact plans for many property owners across the state.
In July, OTA began sending letters to property owners in areas they believe may need to be eventually required through right-of-way land acquisition.
“We send out letters to property owners in the areas we think we may have to gain access to,” said Jessica Brown with the Oklahoma Transportation Authority, in a statement to KFOR at the time.
Brown went on to say it will compensate fairly for any land it ends up taking, but that is little solace to residents like Darla LeBlanc, who was not only born and raised in Norman, but married her high school sweetheart and returned to the area to raise their family.
Most recently recent reporting from The Norman Transcript noted that OTA is now required to provide and participate in discovery and depositions after a judge denied its efforts to resist a pending yet related open-meeting lawsuit in Cleveland County.
“We have a beautiful two acres in East Norman,” said resident Darla LeBlanc in an interview Tuesday with KFOR about the potential impact to her longtime family home and her husband’s business selling native Oklahoma pollinator plants.
Darla said she’s used several vacation days to participate in turnpike related events since February’s announcement about the plan.
“I feel like I’ve gotten sort of a part time job and instead of spending my evenings with my kids, I spend it learning about what’s new with the turnpike,” she said.
“I grew up in Norman. I graduated from Norman High. I married my high school sweetheart, but we chose [to live in] Norman specifically for the school district. We both had a very good experience in the Norman public schools, and we wanted our kids to do that too. If we have to move out of town, no, I don’t think that we could replicate that elsewhere,” she added.
While Darla and Cedric also have an established home and are part of a family business that has multi-generational significance, they stand to lose it if the long-range plan continues to plow forward, as the home they share is right in the path of the planned south extension, near Lake Thunderbird.
“My husband actually started this business with his family, his older sister and her husband,” she continued.
“He and his family just had a vision that they’d be able to work together and produce something that would be good for our community and our environment, and he’s been pretty successful,” she added.
“But the future is so uncertain for the business and for our family and our kids, we don’t know what’s going to happen. And it’s a terrible limbo to live in.”
Yet, the project’s proponents continue to say the toll roads will help with congestion in multiple areas, while expanding access across Oklahoma.
Darla said it could be impossible to replace what’s lost , even if OTA promises to offer a “far market value” price.
“I still feel guilty, like I should have somehow planned for this. But you don’t ever plan for your government to come and destroy your house,” she said.
“There’s a lot of people on my side and that’s the only good thing that’s come out of this,” she continued.
“So I’m not alone.”
Many members of the grassroots group PIKE OFF OTA were in attendance or presenting at Tuesday’s meeting, and said attention may be directoed towards getting proposed legislative action in motion.