Attorney files challenge of bond-financed projects with Oklahoma Supreme Court
A lawsuit was filed Friday with the Oklahoma Supreme Court in an effort stop the expansion of turnpikes.
The suit claims the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is violating a constitutional provision that ensures laws address only one subject by issuing $900 million in bonds to be used for multiple toll road projects.
The six bond-financed projects, including the $300 million Northeast Oklahoma County Loop, were announced last October. The projects are expected to be paid for with bonds that will be retired by toll revenues, and the projects would not involve state-appropriated funds.
Attorney Jerry Fent filed the legal challenge Aug. 19 with the Oklahoma City Supreme Court, and a hearing is scheduled for Sept. 20.
Fent has filed previous suits against state officials that accuse them of violating state constitutional prohibition against passing bills that cover more than one subject.
The first phase of bond issues and possible toll rate increases were scheduled to be considered this week by the OTA’s seven-member board of directors comprised of the governor and six members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
Proposed toll hike
The OTA last increased toll rates in August of 2009, and that rate increase was 16 percent.
Earlier this year OTA officials said a similar increase could be expected in order to finance the proposed $892 million in turnpike system improvements.
“It’s not going to be 16 percent, but it will probably be in the neighborhood. We don’t raise tolls too often,” said OTA Spokesman Jack Damrill. “This will only be the ninth toll increase we’ve had in the history of the Turnpike Authority.”
Currently, the Turner Turnpike is the biggest revenue generator for the OTA with a trip from Oklahoma City to Tulsa costing $4 per two-axle vehicle or $3.90 for those with a Pikepass.
Officials say the proposed 21-mile Northeast Oklahoma Loop would add a significant increase in driver safety and reduction in travel time for these travelers in providing an alternative to the heavily congested I-35 corridor through Oklahoma City.
The new toll road would connect I-40 near Harrah and I-44 near Luther.
Exactly a week before the legal challenge against the OTA was filed about 100 eastern Oklahoma County residents gathered in Choctaw Creek Park as protest organizers pleaded for more involvement and greater financial contribution for a legal fight.
The resistance is hoping to push their “Victims of Eminent Domain” legal fund to $100,000 in preparation of a costly legal battle to prevent the expansion of turnpikes.
State transportation officials claim the primary purpose for the Northeast Oklahoma County Loop is safety, and the construction of the toll road would allow would allow for a quick solution as metro-area populations and traffic numbers continue to increase.
Officials claim that with the massive budget shortfall, including cuts to the Department of Transportation, needed improvements in eastern Oklahoma County are unrealistic without the assistance of the OTA.
Paul Crouch, of Newalla, is a spokesman for the opposition, and he rejects claims for the necessity of such a road.
“You see, we opposers believe in the state constitution which clearly says that no road will be built in Oklahoma for purely economic reasons; which is exactly why this one has been proposed. We opposers also believe that a valid need must be proven in order to build a new road; that has not happened because there is no valid need for this proposed turnpike. OTA could have easily used existing roads and simply modify them to meet any perceived traffic need (highway 102 and 177),” argues Crouch.
“However, that would not allow OTA to keep the purported tax base in Oklahoma county, so they continue to bully the citizens of Eastern Oklahoma County. It is obvious that a better route exists, but then, OTA must think of its rich private investors; OTA always takes this approach over the desires of citizens. We opposers all believe in our property rights and do not believe that OTA or the Governor considered the desires of the citizens. This entire turnpike debacle is not about a new turnpike…it is about big money and private investors.”
While state officials say the project is not driven by an economic need, State Senator Jack Fry says halting the Northeast Oklahoma County Loop project could have serious implications for Tinker Air Force Base and the entire state.
As the former Mayor of Midwest City, Fry says he has been involved in conversations with top military officials who have expressed concerns over the lack of transportation routes to the base.
“There has been tremendous concern about security for the base and having a means of egress and entrance into the base in the event something happened to I-35. This OTA project will absolutely resolve some of those concerns for homeland security and the Air Force,” stated Fry.
Fry doesn’t understand the degree of opposition, and believes the turnpike will be a key factor in keeping TAFB safe from the Defense Base Closure Realignment Commission (BRAC).
“I don’t think anybody wants to lose Tinker Air Force Base,” stated Fry. “We all know the federal government doesn’t have to live on a budget. If they want to close the base they can close the base and go somewhere else. OTA is self-funded and that’s why we’re able to do this, and at a critical time when the base is growing. Tinker employees earn more than the median income. These are the types of jobs we need to attract and keep.”