Originally written by Tassie Katherine Hirschfeld and Amy Cerato and published in the Tulsa World on January 6, 2023. Tulsa World link.
An effort is underway to expand turnpike construction under the guise of economic development. After reviewing the troubled history and past performance of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, we believe projects such as the controversial $5 billion ACCESS Oklahoma project will harm the state.
The proposed turnpike expansions will not improve highway safety, reduce traffic or bring development or prosperity. Instead, they are likely to result in annual double-digit toll increases for all drivers and widespread environmental destruction.
In short, we believe these new turnpikes would become some of the most expensive mistakes in Oklahoma history.
The three new turnpikes planned for the Norman-Oklahoma City area have been resoundingly criticized by local officials and civil engineers because the proposed routes make no economic, engineering or environmental sense. No traffic or environmental studies have been shared with the public, and two of the proposed alignments — the south extension and east-west connector planned for east and north Norman — would endanger the city’s main drinking water reservoir.
The routes are too far east to divert traffic from Interstate 35 and would instead pave over the rare geological formation that produces the world’s only barite rose rocks — the official state rock of Oklahoma. The proposed turnpikes would also destroy and force hundreds of families out of their homes at a time when available housing is at a 10-year low.
Furthermore, the construction of the three new proposed turnpikes is legally unauthorized and prohibited under Oklahoma’s Turnpike Enabling Act. The act commands that the Legislature, and not the OTA, gets to decide whether and where a new turnpike is built. The three new turnpikes violate the rule of law, the principles of representative democracy and are a clear case of government overreach.
City officials in Norman have repeatedly denounced the OTA for keeping these projects secret — no elected officials nor any of the over 650 directly impacted homeowners whose properties lie in the path of the proposed routes were invited to take part in the planning process. A judge in Cleveland County agreed.
On Dec. 1, the OTA was found guilty of willfully violating the state’s Open Meeting Act in a legal case that represented 246 affected property owners. The consequences are significant as it invalidates all contract work on the ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike projects performed to date.
Twelve engineering firms must now return more than $30 million already received for advance design and right-of-way work. An additional $113.5 million in contracts for pending work were invalidated.
This legal ruling reveals the high cost of the OTA’s lack of oversight and poor management. Instead of bringing prosperity and much needed development, the OTA has created uncertainty and financial hardship for its contractors.
Several other legal challenges are underway with allegations of OTA skirting the rules. Tulsa-area residents should also be aware of the numerous controversies surrounding the recently completed Gilcrease Turnpike extension, including unexpected tolls.
With this track record, we are comfortable predicting the ACCESS Oklahoma projects will fail, and those failures will be unbearably expensive. OTA already has the highest debt burden of any state agency, and Oklahoma has more turnpike miles per capita than any other state.
ACCESS Oklahoma would create $5 billion worth of new debt and irreparable harm for grandiose projects that are wholly unnecessary. We encourage all Oklahomans to join us in lobbying for a thorough audit of the OTA and a moratorium on all new turnpike construction projects.
Tassie K. Hirschfeld has a doctorate in anthropology and is a professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. Amy Cerato, a licensed professional engineer, holds a doctorate in geotechnical engineering and is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Oklahoma.
The above article was written in response to a Chamber of Commerce piece published on December 20, 2022.