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Oklahoma Turnpike Authority goes back to drawing board as work resumes on $5B ACCESS plan

Drivers struggle to merge onto the Indian Nation Turnpike. The Turnpike Authority is reprioritizing dozens of projects after two lawsuits ended.
Janelle Stecklein
Oklahoma Voice
Drivers struggle to merge onto the Indian Nation Turnpike. The Turnpike Authority is reprioritizing dozens of projects after two lawsuits ended.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is rethinking its $5 billion turnpike expansion and improvement plans now that two lawsuits have been settled.

The agency recently acquired $500 million in bonds that will allow it to resume engineering design work and property acquisitions, but will reprioritize the order of the projects, said agency spokesperson Lisa Shearer-Salim in an email.

“OTA is reassessing the long-range plan and will reprioritize the nearly 60 projects in ACCESS Oklahoma based on several factors including the information from studies, design considerations, right-of-way acquisition, utility relocation and inflation in construction costs,” she said.

Shearer-Salim said lawsuits delayed OTA’s plans by about a year as the agency would have preferred to acquire bonds last year. Due to delays from litigation, the agency faces as much as a 15% increase in road materials costs and slightly higher interest rates on the bonds.

OTA faced two lawsuits from Norman-area residents who accused the agency of violating the Open Meeting Act and defied state law bond procedures. They argued all turnpikes the Legislature authorized in 1987 should have been under one bond issuance instead of numerous bonds over the years.

During litigation, OTA stopped work on its plans until the Oklahoma Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the agency in both lawsuits.

At the top of OTA’s new priority list is widening the Turner Turnpike to six lanes from Oklahoma City to Bristow in several phases over the next 14 years. Next are improvements to the John Kilpatrick, the Will Rogers and H.E. Bailey toll roads, she said.

Construction on a proposed turnpike route through the Lake Thunderbird area won’t begin until much later in its 15-year plan, she said. That proposed route, which runs across a watershed in the Norman area, has been subject to considerable controversy.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation denied OTA’s application to build a new turnpike through easements the federal agency owns near the lake. The bureau oversees dams, lakes and canals.

In its response to OTA, the federal agency said the proposed turnpike was inconsistent with the lake’s purpose as a drinking water supply and posed a threat to wildlife species.

OTA officials promised to resubmit an application with changes to the route, but Shearer-Salim said the agency has yet to do so.

The turnpike proposed in the Lake Thunderbird area is expected to be built last “due to the amount of design work still to complete,” she said.

A second Norman-area turnpike is projected to be built in phases over the next five years along Indian Hills Road east from Interstate 35.

Some Norman area residents chose to sell their property soon after OTA announced its turnpike plan and Shearer-Salim expects the trend to continue.

“Now that work is resuming, if a property owner is affected by a priority alignment, OTA will begin assessing requests by property owners who are ready to enter right-of-way acquisition,” she said. “As engineering design progresses, more property acquisitions will move forward as it makes sense to do so.”

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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