The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority halted work on the $5-billion ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike improvement project in mid-April, citing several lawsuits and an agency audit by the state’s attorney general office that will create difficulty to sell bonds for the project.
The decision ends all engineering and road work, except for a small portion of the Turner Turnpike expansion, one of the projects comprising ACCESS Oklahoma. The project entails widening a section of the turnpike from four to six lanes between Oklahoma City and Bristow, the state’s two largest metro areas; constructing reliever routes to the south of Oklahoma City; and adding additional on- and off-ramps to the existing turnpike to increase traffic safety for the state’s rural areas.
“I have mentioned several times, including during the recent board meeting, that our continued ACCESS Oklahoma project work would be impacted or even stopped due to our inability to enter the bond market,” Secretary of Transportation and agency Executive Director Tim Gatz told the board in the memo.
Bob Stem, executive director of the Association of Oklahoma General Contractors, says the 15-year megaproject was seen as a boon for the state’s construction sector.
“The current workforce will not be impacted, but we were expecting to ramp up hiring,” says Stem, adding that the state had not awarded bids to contractors before the halting.
However, engineering firms were hired and ready to get started on ACCESS Oklahoma, with Poe & Associates doing “most of the quarterbacking,” Stem says. The Sooner state budgets about $1 billion annually on highway construction projects, he says. The ACCESS project would double Oklahoma's highway spending.
When the project was announced in February 2022, problems started almost immediately.
Last summer, the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation rejected planned construction of part of the Norman project because it “is not compatible with the Congressionally authorized purpose for which the land was acquired and is still needed.” This led to the agency revamping a portion of the Norman design.
Legal action quickly followed the announcement; with most lawsuits challenging the state’s Open Meetings Act. In December 2022, Cleveland County Circuit Judge issued a summary judgment finding the authority violated the law by placing the project on the meeting agenda without advertising. The agency is appealing to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Several other lawsuits are also pending in circuit courts.
After the authority announced the work halt, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office announced it would conduct an audit of agency finances. In a terse press release, Attorney General Gentner Drummond said: “This is a concerning development that causes me to question the leadership and cash-flow management of this critical agency. While it is unclear what the future holds for OTA, I am certain that the investigative audit I have ordered is needed now more than ever.”
The agency stated that it is awaiting the state’s Supreme Court ruling, which it believes will rule in its favor. Court "validation would allow the [agency] to enter the bond market and begin work on the plan,” the authority said in a statement to ENR.
A Supreme Court spokesperson did not return an ENR query seeking information on a ruling date.
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