Editor's note: this story has been updated to reflect that the OTA's statewide toll road expansion will cost $5 billion.

Residents who claimed they weren’t getting answers interrupted the deputy director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority with pointed remarks at a public meeting Thursday.

The OTA announced in February a $5 billion, 15-year plan to expand the state’s turnpike system including two new toll roads in Norman — one west of Lake Thunderbird in east Norman and one along Indian Hills Road to connect Moore, Norman and Oklahoma City.

OTA officials faced around 300 residents and protesters Tuesday evening at the Central Public Library, where staff was available at tables to take questions and gather information. But the crowd demanded a public question and answer time directly with Deputy Director Joe Echelle.

Those questions could not be answered at the tables, some shouted.

“I want to know if we refuse eminent domain and stand together are they gonna force bulldozers and law enforcement into our properties and forcibly remove us from our properties and incarcerate us,” a man asked at the back of the room.

While Echelle could not be heard answering the question, OTA spokesperson James Poling said the question about a resident being forcibly removed from a home was “handled through the courts.”

Echelle continued his speech by addressing common concerns such as cemeteries.

“We will not come through cemeteries,” he said.

“Because you respect the dead more than the living,” a woman shouted from the back. “Respect the living.”

Echelle continued to speak above a crowd shouting “Go away OTA,” and “You should all be hanged,” among other comments.

In the three minutes OTA officials did speak to the crowd, Echelle said that the OTA would do all that is required to “protect the water resources,” then announced it was time to break to the tables.

“Public questions, public answers,” a woman shouted.

Residents were frustrated that their questions were unheard or were unanswered in a public group setting, said Inger Guiffrida, Executive Director of WildCare, a wildlife rehabilitation center in the path of the proposed route.

“Tonight we were here to get the OTA to address the entire room,” she said. “We felt that everyone’s questions needed to be asked so that everyone can hear the answers.”

While Guiffrida did not object to the information tables and one-on-one questions with OTA staff, she said they haven’t answered larger questions.

“What’s going to happen to our watershed? What’s going to happen to the economy of Norman when you wipe out 650 homes and you lose that property tax and the buying power of all those individuals?” she asked. “Those are questions they should be accountable to everyone for.”

While protesters have said as many as 800 homes will be affected, Echelle has said the OTA does not know the number of homes it will take and that the map which shows an impact area will diminish once the route is finalized.

During a press conference before the meeting, Echelle said he doesn’t have a lot of answers for homeowners because the OTA is in the beginning phase of the project.

“A lot of the questions people have are very individual and specific. We don’t necessarily have the answers to those, and we’re trying to move forward as quickly as we can,” he said.

While OTA has signed some engineering contracts have been signed, which will speed the process along, more contracts are coming, Echelle said. Once those are completed, “as we move through that process and begin to do some of that design, we’ll be able to address those individual questions.”

The meeting is designed to obtain residents’ addresses, contact information and “hopefully answer some broad questions for them,” Echelle said.

When asked what the OTA learned from Noble residents who attended the meeting at the Noble High School Thursday, he said, he had not “gone through every question,” and that they’re still tabulating them.

The top concern voiced to OTA is “usually the property acquisition process” and the timeline of the project, Echelle said.

Some property owners are asking the OTA to purchase their homes now.

“We have had lots of folks reach out to us, ever since Feb. 22, when this was first announced on our website, we’ve had them tell us, ‘Hey, we were going to sell our house anyway,’ but we have not entered into any property acquisition with anybody that didn’t reach out to us,” Echelle said.

Protestors

Members of Pike Off OTA set up an information room with pamphlets and contact sheets in a room next to the OTA’s meeting.

The organization formed March 15 as a not-for-profit corporation, Secretary of State records show.

Pike Off OTA spokeswoman Amy Tyler said they wanted to be available to people who wanted to volunteer and learn how to advocate against the OTA.

“We’re giving people who don’t want to see the turnpikes developed an opportunity to take action,” she said.

Organizers direct members to voice turnpike concerns to city, county and state elected officials. While few responded to the emails, letters and calls, Tyler said she believes they are paying attention.

“I think it’s hard not to pay attention,” she said. “It’s a big issue.”

Tyler described an organized movement complete with committees that specialize in different areas of the route and various issues it poses, such as environmental concerns at Lake Thunderbird and the legal options to resist the OTA’s plans.

“We have several committees focused on all the different areas that are affected by the turnpikes, so we are covering all of our bases,” Tyler said.

The group also offered to conduct exit interviews “to tell their story,” Tyler said.

“They can tell their story about whether they got their questions answered, what are their struggles exactly,” Tyler said.

When asked during the press conference if the response from the community could stop the turnpike, Echelle said he could not say if it would alter the route or not.

“We’re working through all the different facets. There are a lot of different variables when you’re putting together a project of this size. There’s a lot of things that can get in the way of this project. We’re working through these issues one-by-one,” he said.

Tyler said she was not certain public meetings would change the route.

“I think they want to give the impression that our input could make a difference,” Tyler said. “I don’t think they have any intentions of doing it any differently.”

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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