An estimated 400 residents of Eastern Oklahoma County, armed with signs and passions, packed the inside headquarters and outside grounds of the Oklahoma Association of General Contractors where the January 2016 meeting of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority was held. Many stood, among them were senior citizens, children, couples, business owners, farmers, vineyard owners and a congressman – all there to show concern (or outright opposition) to the OTA’s $300 million project to build a turnpike from I-40 to I-44 near Luther. Most of the protesters have land in or near the path of the route, a route that is undetermined according to the authority.
OTA Chairman Albert “Kell” Kelly, president of SpiritBank, presided over the meeting and worked through the agenda that involved safety awards to OTA employees, a recognition of outgoing OTA Executive Director Tim Stewart and Board Member Kevin Hern, and several finance and engineering items on various maintenance issues on our state’s turnpike system, along with a few items advancing money and contracts on the EOC project.
The regular business part of the agenda was put aside to welcome Oklahoma Congressman Steve Russell who cited the blizzard in Washington DC as the reason he was able to attend the meeting. He spoke at the podium.
“I come before you today as a homeowner in Choctaw (applause) …That being said, I also appreciate what this board does for our state and our economy. The turn out here today, I think, is indicative of how important issues like these are. And so, one thing I learned in the military is the number one cause of stress is lack of information. When we have lack of information, people begin to fill in the blanks. I, like many of my constituents, driving home on Peebly Road began to see white “x” on people’s yards and on the road, and wondered what that meant and began to become very concerned,” said Congressman Russell.
He called for more public meetings and for the Driving Forward Oklahoma proponents to demonstrate a need for the project, along with a comparison of routes.
“We know there is a need and a problem (with traffic congestion and accidents) but we have to have a comparison of routes so people’s homes are not unnecessarily lost, their livelihoods aren’t necessarily transplanted. And then for me, being a staunch defender of the Constitution, the fourth amendment of the Bill of Rights … the rights to our property. But I don’t diminish that sometimes – the greater good takes over,” he said.
See the entirety of Congressman Russell’s speech here (apologies for the poor quality). Following his remarks, he visited with many neighbors who were outside.
Later in the meeting, Amber Polach who represented the anti-EOC Loop contingency was allotted ten minutes to speak. The Carl Albert High School teacher (who got a substitute for the day) used all of her time outlining many issues and questions that she demanded OTA answer. See her speech here. (Again, pardon the poor quality of the video. A new camera is on our capital improvements list for the newspaper!)
“What is the data that indicates the targeted area will benefit economically? If you look at towns along I-44, specifically Stroud, I would say they can make a pretty good argument against (the promise of ) economic growth.
The promise of general economic growth sounds very similar to the promises of Walmart to the citizens of Luther not very long ago. Now eight months later, we have a large vacant building, said Polach whose family lives near 150th and Dobbs and has six “x” marks on her property.
Polach said this meeting was the first opportunity that citizens have had to address their concerns to the OTA since the project was announced in a grand event at the Capitol on October 29, 2015.
“The taking of our land for the use of building a turnpike is devastating to the homeowner. Visions and dreams for their future will not exist as their homes will be scarred with the turnpike running right through it or very close to it.
After her comments, Choctaw Mayor Randy Ross spoke in favor of the project, to jeers and the admonition of Chairman Kelly for civility. Mayor Roach said many “Pro EOC” representatives were in the audience, however, he acknowledged they could have stepped up their sign game.
See his remarks here. (Again. Quality. But where else can you access ALL of the content?)
“On behalf of the businesses and communities of Choctaw, Harrah, Jones, Luther and Nicoma Park, I want to formally express my support for the EOC corridor. Our communities representing about 90,000 residents, most of whom look forward to increased job opportunities, better shopping and dining, and overall improved quality of life … This new turnpike is the result of a cumulative ongoing advocacy effort on behalf of all five communities and a growing private sector leadership of over 3,000 small businesses,” he said.
Following the meeting, Chairman Kelly gave a quick interview to the media.
“I think it’s very healthy for citizens to come and discuss what their issues are. We are a volunteer board that’s appointed to serve and our job is to administer the turnpikes of the state. We want to do the best we can to be responsible to the citizens and the Governor. We want to take into account everything they’ve said (today), and we will,” said Kelly.
Asked by the media whether the EOC was a done deal, Kelly joked that he was being asked a leading question.
“We are in the process of evaluating all of the documentation which are studies that are in process. The Governor has announced there is going to be a turnpike out there. If you look at the long-term benefits for the metropolitan area, there is an immediate need for infrastructure. I believe the use projections will warrant that,” said Kelly.
He also promised that the OTA will hold additional public hearings with ample notice and anyone who wants to take part will be welcome.