THE ROAD AHEAD
The Oklahoman USA TODAY NETWORK
Oklahoma turnpike commissioners unanimously voted to resume work on ACCESS Oklahoma after spending an hour listening to protesters fighting plans to tear down their homes to make way for new toll roads.
More than $132 million in contracted engineering and consulting work was put on hold last month when Seminole County Judge Timothy Olsen ruled turnpike officials “willfully” violated the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act when they withheld details of ACCESS Oklahoma before commissioners voted on contracts at their Feb. 22, 2022, meeting.
After that ruling, and with Normanarea homeowners alerted to the new
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“I can’t stand here and tell you we’re going to change anything. But we are going to have an ear toward some constructive dialogue.”
Secretary of transportation
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turnpike routes, more than three dozen protesters attended Tuesday’s Oklahoma Turnpike Authority meeting.
At its February meeting, the turnpike authority featured only speakers supporting the plan and also paid to acquire potential opposition website addresses.
This time, an overflow crowd of protesters watched a televised feed outside of the transportation boardroom. Commissioners voted to ratify paying the previously approved contracts as a “corrective action” on Olsen’s ruling. Several protesters saw the action as a forgone conclusion and didn’t expect commissioners to listen to their pleas.
“I can’t stand here and tell you we’re going to change anything,” said Tim Gatz, secretary of transportation. “But we are going to have an ear toward some constructive dialogue.”
Amy Cerato, a member of the PIKE OFF protest group, told turnpike commissioners they were being given misleading information and advice from Gatz and other officials.
“You’ve rubber-stamped everything they’ve bought before you,” Cerato said. “It doesn’t make sense. You’ve already been adjudicated as willfully violating the law based on what they’ve brought to you. I would be concerned. There is a possibility of criminal prosecution.”
Turnpike commissioners continued to stay quiet about questions and concerns brought to them by protesters. They spent about 90 minutes in an executive session before voting to resume work on ACCESS Oklahoma. They also instructed turnpike staff to look at appealing Olsen’s ruling.
Attorneys for PIKE OFF say they likely will file a taxpayers’ lawsuit to recover money spent by the turnpike authority and from the contracted vendors.
Under state law, a taxpayer lawsuit can be filed with sworn statements by 100 or more voters who think they can prove the turnpike authority’s actions are unlawful.
The lawsuits, if filed, also could include Poe & Associates and other ACCESS Oklahoma engineers and consultants.
“It would name every one of these firms that stood to benefit from these invalid contracts,” said attorney Richard Labarthe, who represents 246 Norman-area residents whose homes are threatened by ACCESS Oklahoma.
Protesters were given one hour to comment on resumption of ACCESS Oklahoma, but were prohibited from asking questions of turnpike officials or commissioners.
That included Cerato, a geotechnical engineer and professor at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science. Gatz told Cerato in March that she would be given a chance to visit with engineers about potential environmental concerns tied to the new Norman-area turnpikes.
That discussion has yet to happen. Gatz said Tuesday a “dialogue” with Cerato eventually will happen, but he couldn’t say when or whether it will allow for her to question project engineers.
“This is in context of this being in a 15-year long range plan,” Gatz said. “That opportunity will continue to exist as we continue to develop engineering. That still stands … all of the environmental concerns brought up have to be addressed as we continue with these projects.”
Gatz added the new turnpikes to be built north and east of Norman as a traffic reliever for Interstate 35 won’t be started until “the tail end” of the 15 years. He said “barring something completely unforeseen,” the route for those turnpikes likely will be “pretty close” to what was shown on maps released in February. He added the route could be adjusted in response to ongoing studies.
Attendees Tuesday included two former transportation officials: David Streb, who was director of engineers, and John Bowman, who was director of capital programs. They now run Poe & Associates, a 34-member firm that was hired Tuesday to work with the turnpike authority to run ACCESS Oklahoma. Commissioners approved paying Poe & Associates another $6,145,705, giving the engineering firm a total of $20,187,359 for work related to ACCESS Oklahoma.
As of Tuesday, records show the turnpike authority has paid $60 million of the $132 million in contracted work.
All work on ACCESS Oklahoma was halted a month ago after Olsen’s ruling, and Gatz said Tuesday he was uncertain when a full resumption might begin. The turnpike authority is awaiting a state Supreme Court decision on whether to validate up to $5 billion in bonds for the system-wide toll road network.
Gatz could not say what the turnpike authority might do if it fails to get permission to proceed with bond sales. The authority borrowed from capital maintenance funds after it failed to get permission from the state’s Council on Bond Oversight to get a line of credit from Wells Fargo.
Citing legal rulings against the turnpike authority, including the finding of willful violation of the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act, Labarthe sent a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt asking him to replace Gatz as transportation secretary and Joe Echelle as deputy turnpike director.
Both Stitt and turnpike commission Chairman Gene Love said Gatz and Echelle have their full support.
“Tim Gatz has done an exceptional job as secretary of transportation and improving infrastructure across Oklahoma,” said Carly Atchison, Stitt’s spokesperson.
Contributing: Staff writer Ben Felder