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'They should have enough': Tulsans concerned over statewide construction project halt

Oklahoma Turnpike Authority building. (KOKH/FILE)
Oklahoma Turnpike Authority building. (KOKH/FILE)
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Some Tulsans have raised concerns following the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's decision to indefinitely halt its ACCESS Oklahoma highway infrastructure project.

The ACCESS Oklahoma project is a 15-year expansion plan that includes 55 miles of new roads, some of which were planned to cut through several Norman neighborhoods.

Projects affected by the pause in the ACCESS Oklahoma project include the widening of Interstate 44/Turner Turnpike, I-44/Will Rogers Turnpike, and John Kilpatrick Turnpike, new access points throughout the state's toll network, and new alignments.

The OTA said it paused all activity on engineering, surveying, and participating in other planning efforts for the $5 billion project for the foreseeable future. The website for the project said the halt will continue until the Oklahoma Supreme Court issues its decision on the agency's application for approval of bonds.

The OTA said it does not have access to the bond mark to fund planning and construction activities for the project.

"We've taken the development of that comprehensive long-range plan as far as we can go," said Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz.

Gatz said the situation should not raise alarm when it comes to the OTA's financial position, and that the agency remains strong.

This announcement isn't the first time work on the ACCESS project was seemingly stalled. In December, work was paused on the project after a judge ruled it violated the Open Meeting Act.

The argument from Pike Off OTA over the project was that the OTA was in violation of the Open Meeting Act due to two of their agendas, from Jan. 25, 2022, and Feb. 22, 2022, not identifying all of the business that OTA was actually intending on conducting.

In addition to ongoing litigation over that issue, Gatz said the bond access issue is likely the biggest concern before any projects can resume.

"When the turnpike authority takes on a 'pay as you go' basis, it is our general revenue fund that can be used to advance projects like this but at some point you exhaust the ability to do that," he said.

On Friday, NewsChannel 8 spoke with some Tulsans who questioned why their taxpayer dollars and toll collections have not served as a way to keep the project moving regardless.

"They've taken enough of our taxes every year, they should have enough," said Dawn Justice. "They have plenty of money to do this and I don't think they're using it for the right things sometimes. I don't know what they're using it for, but I don't think they're using it for the right things sometimes."

Pike Off OTA President Amy Cerato echoed those concerns in an interview with NewsChannel 8 Friday. She said the project should be scrapped altogether and reworked into a project that she believes would benefit Oklahomans rather than focusing on a secret agenda.

"I think that the citizens of Oklahoma are rightly disappointed that the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is not being a good financial steward," said Cerato.

NewsChannel 8 spoke with Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who raised his own concerns about the project being suddenly suspended.

"That gives me further concern," said Drummond. "Are we wasting bonded dollars for which the state of Oklahoma will ultimately pay?"

Drummond has also requested an investigative audit of the OTA, following dozens of allegations of mishandling finances.

"Was there competitive bidding? Was there favors given? Were there violations of law? I don't know that," he said.

NewsChannel 8 asked Gatz and Drummond what impact, if any, the temporary stop of the project could have on taxpayer dollars, however, both did not answer directly.

Gatz acknowledged this week the halt of the project would cost the OTA money. He said that the goal is to ultimately resume the project once litigation and the bond market problem have been resolved.


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