OTA Meeting Norman Public Library

Meeting attendees gather April 19 during a meeting hosted by the Oklahoma Transportation Authority to answer questions about the proposed turnpike in Cleveland County.

The Oklahoma House of Representatives on Wednesday passed Senate Bill 1610, which forces the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to perform environmental impact studies, and heads back to the senate with an amendment before consideration by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

The OTA announced plans in February that it would expand the state’s turnpike system including two new toll roads in Norman, which triggered concerns about the impacts to residents, natural resources and wildlife habitat loss and disruption. As proposed, the OTA’s $5 billion, 15-year Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economics Safely [ACCESS] plan will extend the Kickapoo Turnpike south from Interstate 40 through east Norman in the Lake Thunderbird watershed to Purcell. A second one will run along Indian Hills Road to connect Moore, Norman and Oklahoma City.

The bill, authored by state Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, requires the OTA to perform studies before bonds can be issued. Those studies include impacts to the environment, private property and whether the OTA chose the most effective route against other routes considered.

A report on those studies would be delivered to the Governor, Speaker of the House, Senate President Pro Tem and both senate and house transportation committees.

State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said the bill was amended in the house for the bill to affect the east-west leg of Indian Hills Road as well.

“If [Standridge] accepts, it goes to the Governor. If he rejects, it goes to conference committee,” said Rosecrants. “I expect he’ll accept the amendment, and it’ll head to the governor, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could reject, and it could die in the dark of conference committee,” he said.

Rosecrants also said Stitt could “pocket veto” the bill — let it die when the legislative session ends.

Standridge did not comment whether he expected Stitt to sign the bill into law, but said, “I applaud the House for the passage of this bill.”

Senator Mary Boren, D-Norman, did not respond to a request for comment. State Rep. Merleyn Bell was not present for the presentation and vote and had no comment, she said Thursday.

State Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, said in a prepared statement that the bill will also allow the legislature to alter the route.

Slowing construction ‘even if 1610 dies’

With the bill’s passage, the OTA’s plans will have to include the studies before the agency can issue the bonds to construct the road.

“I think it will slow the existing OTA process down, which is especially important to do before the bonds are sold,” Rosecrants said. “Beyond that point, it isn’t an end-all, be-all type of legislation. It’s a basic understanding, as I’m not an expert on all of this [bond process], but from all I know, once the bonds are sold, this proposed turnpike becomes inevitable.”

The Transcript asked the OTA to comment on the process from the issuance of bonds to the corresponding timeline of construction.

“The ACCESS Oklahoma Program is a very large program and will require multiple bond issues to complete,” OTA spokesperson James Poling said. “The Authority is looking to issue the first bond issue sometime in the first half of 2023. Depending on the timing of expenditures and funding needs, the Authority will continue to issue 30-year bonds over the next 15 years. There is no hard and fast schedule.”

Pike Off OTA spokesman Michael Nash said he placed no faith in the bill to stop the turnpikes from being built in Norman.

“I think we can stop it and the OTA, even if 1610 dies,” he said. “But 1610 would be a nice aid.”

Norman Ward 5 city councilor Rarchar Tororello, whose ward would by far be impacted the most by the turnpike construction, said the bill is a test of transparency.

“Thousands of my constituents, including those along the east-west corridor of Wards 6 & 8, and our neighbors to the south demanded transparency and accountability,” Tortorello said. “The passage of SB1610 will provide a much-needed sense of security for all. This bill not only requires increased transparency and accountability but also reestablishes hope in the lives of many people. With its implementation comes the oversight necessary for relief that private property could be taken by an agency exercising eminent domain powers. People are rightfully wrecked with anxiety and depression due to the prospect of losing what they hold most dearly — irreplaceable and generational family memories. Only through enforcement of SB1610 will the reigns of democracy be realized that state agencies are accountable to the people. This will be the true test for many who remain highly skeptical as we wait for Governor Stitt to sign SB1610.”

Plans in motion

A portion of bond money will be released after the OTA requested $200 million at its board meeting Tuesday morning.

After the meeting, Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz said the funds will help the OTA get started on ACCESS Oklahoma to pay for engineering and studies.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us and that interim financing will help us get out of the starting blocks to get to where we have better engineering, better information to pull the trigger on a lot of the environmental studies and other types of studies that are going to be necessary to advance the ACESS Oklahoma program,” Gatz said.

The types of studies to be performed depend on the requirement of “agency partners,” Gatz said.

The OTA has said it will comply with any required studies to be performed in accordance with federal land jurisdiction such as the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and more. As previously reported by the newspaper, the proposed southeast extension in east Norman will enter U.S. Bureau of Reclamation territory, which triggers the requirement to follow federal environmental protection laws.

Gatz said the OTA is at the beginning of a long-range 15-year plan, not a five-year window.

“One of the things that I’m adamant about is that this is a long-range plan,” he said. “We’ve got a 15-year window we’re dealing with here. That was the right thing to do, because we have to engage the public in these conversations and give ourselves time to do the engineering, to appropriately deliver the studies, make sure we’re doing the things the way that they need to be done.”

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.

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