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Oklahoma Turnpike Authority tells Supreme Court routes can change, provides financing update

Residents gather outside of the OTA January Board Meeting to protest the $5 billion ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike project on Jan. 3, 2023.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Residents gather outside of the OTA January Board Meeting to protest the $5 billion ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike project on Jan. 3, 2023.

It’s unclear where a new turnpike near Norman will run. But, state officials are continuing to weigh options on potential routes.

That was revealed in a filing last week in the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’sresponse to two Oklahoma State Supreme Court two questions.

The court had given a deadline of last week to answer its questions about the route of the South Extension Turnpike and its previous bond approval from the Council of Bond Oversight. Both matters stem from the authority’s 15-year, $5 billion dollar infrastructure project titledACCESS Oklahoma.

The South Extension turnpike was set to go near Lake Thunderbird, causing environmental concerns with the project. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who owns the lake’s property,denied the OTA’s application to build the toll road.

The court asked OTA to explain where the authority would put the South Extension turnpike following the denial. The authority responded that final alignments change and pointed to the bureau’s discussion of a possible second application in its denial letter, should the route be changed.

The second question asked by the court wanted an explanation as to why the OTA allowed its conditional approval from the Council of Bond Oversight to lapse. The council approved the authority’s $500 million bond package conditionally, following the result of two legal challenges to ACCESS.

That approval lapsed in February. The OTA wrote that they had waited for the conclusion of a lawsuit that claimed the authority violated the Open Meeting Act. In December, a district judge ruled the OTA had violated the law, however, justicesoverturned that decision in May.

OTA wrote it will reapply for bond approval now that the court has ruled in the Open Meeting Act suit. In the court response, OTA noted that they don’t need Council of Bond Oversight approval prior to filing with the Supreme Court, pointing to state law.

In a statement, plaintiff in both legal challenges against OTA Tassie Hirschfeld wrote the authority has no respect for the process involving turnpike authorization.

“The OTA’s language makes it clear they believe they should be allowed to borrow billions of dollars for highway construction with no oversight and no accountability,” Hirschfeld wrote.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

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