Hundreds of demonstrators filled the halls of the Oklahoma Capitol and shouted “Go away OTA” Wednesday in protest of plans for turnpike expansion in the Norman area.
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority announced last month it will build a new turnpike along Indian Hills Road. It would connect Moore, Norman and Oklahoma City and an extension of the Kickapoo Turnpike in east Norman west of the Lake Thunderbird watershed.
The projects are part of a $5 billion, 15-year statewide expansion of toll roads to ease congestion and enhance public safety. But many Norman residents believe the OTA hid its plans from the public.
Residents have expressed concerns about stormwater runoff from the turnpike and related construction to the area’s watershed, pollution of aquifer-fed wells and the threat to federally protected wildlife like Whooping Cranes and rose rock geological formations. To date, OTA has not performed studies on these impacts, but has said it will begin environmental impact studies once the routes are finalized by engineers.
Some 400 residents gathered with local state and city officials on the Fourth Floor Rotunda to tell the OTA and Gov. Kevin Stitt, who did not attend, that they intend to stop the plan.
Local attorney Stan Ward said he plans to probe possible failures of OTA to properly notify citizens on agendas of its intentions to expand toll roads across the state. Ward won a Cleveland County District Court lawsuit against the city of Norman in 2020 in district court and a unanimous state supreme court appeal after the city council violated the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.
The court found the council’s agenda on police funding did not “sufficiently” inform the public.
Ward would plan to ask the same questions as he goes through agendas and minutes of the OTA meetings, he said.
“This is a project that has been ill-conceived and (hidden),” Ward said. “This is the place where they passed the Open Meeting Act to try to inform ‘we the people’ of what is transpiring in state government. Never forget that the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is an agency of the state of Oklahoma. It should be accountable to ‘we the people.’”
The matter united people who saw the project as a nonpartisan issue, Ward said. That unity would inspi
re fear and respect, and so would the push to stop the OTA, he said.
“We see all these people who are rallied out, Democrats, Republicans, Independents. We’re all in the same boat and we all hope to be rowing in the same direction to put the brakes on to bring this matter to a screeching halt,” he said. “And I mean, a screeching halt.”
Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, urged residents to contact Stitt.
“Let me be really clear: the governor of Oklahoma has the power to stop OTA right now, right here,” Boren said. “I know a lot of you trusted him to listen to the voices of Oklahomans and not the good old boys from days gone by.
“We want to turn around our state right here, right now and that’s what we need the governor to do today— to tell our OTA to go away.”
Mayor Breea Clark and Ward 5 Councilor Rarchar Tortorello also attended the rally, where Clark challenged Stitt.
“I’m gonna call on Gov. Kevin Stitt right here on his home turf and visit Ward 5 with me,” she shouted to the crowd. “We will not stand silently while you ruin retirement homes, multigenerational homes, businesses.
“We deserve better than this. So, if you are going to be my governor, come on out and join me in Norman and let me introduce you to the people who will be impacted by this turnpike.”
Tortorello called on the governor to remember where he’s from.
“This is your hometown, governor,” he said. “Your father preached at my church. These are your people. We are fighting for your people and we are asking that you fight with us.”
Michael Nash, former Ward 5 councilor and president of Pike Off OTA, vowed Norman citizens’ hard work and unity would bring down the OTA.
“We’re striping the OTA’s authority to ever do this again,” Nash said. “We’re holding every leader accountable from the bottom to the top … we will stop the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.”
Nash said Tuesday at a news conference in Norman City Hall that his organization does not intend to abolish the OTA, but keep it from building new toll roads.
A proposed bill
Oklahoma Senator Rob Standridge did not address the crowd, but he had authored a bill to put before lawmakers Thursday that would impose specific environmental studies on the OTA, he said.
Senate Bill 1610 “requires extensive studies to be done,” he said. “Then they can’t do bonds without the studies.”
The bill targets the Ward 5 project — it requires studies to be done 180 days before bonds can be issued for construction.
It also requires the OTA to prepare a report on the “South Extension Turnpike” and note the “factors that were considered when determining the route” and whether the route was the most effective one.
Those studies would be delivered to the governor, Senate president pro tem and speaker of the House.
Studies would also be submitted to the Senate Transportation Committee and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, the bill reads.
After the studies are reviewed, the legislature would have the authority to “modify the authorization for construction or location of the South Extension Turnpike.”
It was the boldest bill he could offer considering “politics,” he said.
“I have four days left, and I thought, ‘What can I do that can get passed on that floor?’” Standridge said. “I can’t run one that alters their authority, I can’t run one that kills the project. They’re not going to hear it.”