Residents protest the ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike project at the Council of Bond Oversight meeting on May 4.

Beth Wallis/StateImpact Oklahoma

In light of lawsuit, council conditionally approves funds for Oklahoma Turnpike Authority

*UPDATE: 7:27 p.m., May 5, 2022*

The OTA announced in a press release Thursday it would not use the $200 million revolving line of credit on the routes listed in the lawsuit, but said it’s still moving forward on some aspects of those routes.

The OTA said it will continue as planned with engineering and environmental surveys for the three contested routes, and it will continue negotiations with residents who have approached the agency about selling their property — but, it said those activities will come out of its General Fund, not from the recent credit line. The agency also committed to requesting judicial validation from the Oklahoma Supreme Court before selling bonds to fund turnpike construction.

The agency said it will use the new credit line to widen the Kilpatrick, Turner and Will Rogers turnpikes, extend the Gilcrease Expressway, build more access points and improve interchanges. 

From the release:

Historically, OTA works from a five-year plan, which is much smaller in scope than the ACCESS Oklahoma program. This 15-year, long-range plan provides the agency flexibility in planning, scheduling and construction and represents better opportunities to engage the public well in advance of future turnpike projects.”

Following a lawsuit filed by opponents of ACCESS Oklahoma Turnpike projects, the council in charge of approving bonds granted the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority $200 million dollars — but the money comes with conditions. 

The Council of Bond Oversight met Wednesday morning to review the OTA’s request for a $200 million revolving line of credit. The council approved the request with the condition that until litigation is over, none of the money can be used for the three routes listed in the lawsuit: the South Extension, the East-West Connector and the Tri-City Connector. 

Attorney Robert Norman filed the lawsuit and one of two formal objections, and attorney Elaine Dowling filed the other objection. The suit argues that based on state law, the proposed South Extension Turnpike route is outside of where OTA can develop and the proposed East-West and Tri-City Connector routes can’t be funded with new bonds. The lawsuit requests a pause in any development of those three routes. 

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the OTA said the agency has received a copy of the petition and is evaluating it.

After the Feb. 22 announcement of the ACCESS Oklahoma projects in Cleveland and Oklahoma counties, residents and local officials have held rallies, pushed legislation and organized a Facebook group of over 6,500 people. Several pieces of legislation have been introduced in attempts to thwart the projects, including HB4088, which is no longer active, SB1610 and SCR25.

South Extension argument

There are 35 locations specified in the Oklahoma Turnpike Enabling Act that the OTA is authorized to use for turnpike development. Norman and Dowling argue the South Extension doesn’t fit in any of those locations. Two of the 35 locations do address Norman, but the lawyers said the proposed routes go much further than the authorized areas. 

“What [the OTA is] trying to argue is that the ending point down by Purcell is in the vicinity of Norman, which is where the endpoint of one of the enumerated turnpikes is supposed to be,” Dowling said. “Now, how that includes this enormous dogleg from Indian Hills down south to Purcell, I’m not really sure.”

East-West and Tri-City Connector argument

There are four turnpikes in the Oklahoma Turnpike Enabling Act that were part of a turnpike package authorized by the legislature in 1987. That authorization was coupled with a rule: a “one issue,” “one bond indenture” mandate, meaning the OTA had to have funded and built those turnpikes with one single bond issue and one single bond indenture. 

The “Oklahoma City Outer Loop” was part of those four grouped turnpikes, and the East-West and Tri-City Connector routes have been confirmed by the OTA as part of that Oklahoma City Outer Loop authorized in 1987. In 1989, one bond was issued that funded a significant portion of the Oklahoma City Outer Loop and a portion of another of the grouped turnpikes. 

The lawyers argue if the OTA wanted these new proposed routes, it would’ve had to have been done in 1989 when the OTA executed that single bond issue. 

“What they’re doing now are obviously new and subsequent bond issues,” Norman said. “By trying to build these new turnpikes or a segment of new turnpikes that fall within this legislative mandate of one bond issue, they’re not complying with the statute. And the clear legislative intent is that they are no longer authorized to build them, and they can’t do this.”

Violation of legal duties, obligations and rights argument

The last of the three claims for relief allege the OTA has “failed, refused and/or given indication that it will not fully comply with and abide by the numerous legal duties, obligations and due process rights” of affected residents. It alleges a failure to perform feasibility and impact studies, though an engineering firm contracted with the OTA said environmental impact studies will happen before property acquisition.

It also alleges the acts of the OTA will cause “irreparable harm and injury” if the agency isn’t compelled to fully abide by its legal duties and the due process rights of residents.