Trust, power and lifestyle.
To oversimplify, the opposition to the Eastern Oklahoma County turnpike project could be boiled down to a few basic issues: trust – or lack of it; power, who has it and why; and lifestyle, rural residents who say they don’t want the expensive road, not in their back yard – not even in their part of the woods.
The anti-EOC group, largely active on the Facebook page, Citizens Opposed to the Eastern Oklahoma County Loop Turnpike Interstate, sprang into action several weeks ago, about the time Oklahoma Turnpike Authority agents began marking private property and roads for the 21-mile “reliever route” turnpike connecting I-44 to I-40. Last Thursday night, hundreds of rural neighbors parked their vehicles up and down the shoulders of Choctaw Road as far as the eye could see, filled the parking lots and overflowed the auditorium, lobby and outdoor patio for a public hearing at Eastern Oklahoma Technology Center. There is also a core group that meets almost daily. They don’t have a paid lobbyist. They don’t have any elected officials on their team. They don’t have much money to buy signs, stickers, mailers and other tools for modern political battle. But they have grit and resolve- the kind it takes to maintain rural property.
And they are suspicious. From petty to conspiratorial, the suspicions show the pervasiveness of a lack of trust: Is the OTA vandalizing our road signs? Did they turn folks away from the meeting because they did not live in the area? Do they know the route already and are not telling us? Who is going to make all of the money? What is the source of their traffic data and is it legitimate? Is the OTA Interim Director and his family financially gaining from the project (an allegation made publicly at the Jan 26 meeting to which the interim director replied to me after the meeting was not only untrue but was an insidious comment).
This issue illustrates perhaps Oklahomans’ general apathy about the government. Look at the other issues affecting our state right now – actually, isn’t it just one issue? Money, and lack of it (or mis-alignment of what they have) to fix crumbling roads and bridges that are NOT turnpikes, fund public education, fix the bleeding corrections and mental health systems and help children who fall into state custody because of parental choices (traced back to poor education, corrections, mental health issues?). The circle keeps spinning. And those problems pre-date the current energy crisis. The OTA says one reason for their continued existence is because the state has chronically underfunded roads and bridges.
Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley, a political appointee, said Thursday night “we screwed up.” He apologized for not communicating the project’s need better before surveyors began marking property in the “study zone” for the road.
Admirable. However, Ridley’s apology was a little bit like “We’re sorry … but.” We should have communicated better, but the road is still coming. “Absolutely,” he said.
So, had the citizens been invited to the big unveiling of the project back in October, would all be swell?
This issue represents a strong civics lesson for everyone. Be aware and involved. There was talk about the project leading up to the unveiling through agendas, and conference table meetings and probably a lot of coffee or chitchat at lobbyist cocktail receptions; and the route has been hinted at for years (remember they tried and failed with a similar project in 1999 with ODOT). Still, most of us are living our lives and not watching our government on any level until there is something to be mad about, and gradually the media has stopped watching too, until there is something to be mad about. As an example, during some of the heated exchanges at the Thursday meeting (you know, the stuff that makes great news!), I whispered to one of the TV reporters, “how much time will you get for this at 10 pm?” She said about a minute. ONE MINUTE! That’s how it is. The Luther Register is one small outlet aiming to get back into the game, not hindered by broadcast time nor printed space, or a pesky editor. Living the “starving” journalist’s dream, I tell you.
The citizens feel unheard and unarmed. Even State Sen. Ron Sharp said he hasn’t returned constituent calls. “Several of you contacted my office and the reason I didn’t directly respond to you is because I didn’t know,” said the Shawnee Republican.
Sharp went on to tell the crowd at the hearing that as a member of the Choctaw nation, his family was forced to move to Oklahoma from Mississippi in the 1830s – you remember that’s a part of our history involving the Trail of Tears (that incidentally involved a treaty). A hundred years later, he said his grandfather was booted off of his land again to make Lake Texoma. So Sharp wants everyone to know he gets it … but.
“I am scared to death. We need all the help we can get to save jobs here in the State of Oklahoma. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know this is emotional. I am very frightened for our state. We have to keep our schools open. I am here for you. We’ll do all we can to help you in this process,” said Sharp.
Some opponents of the turnpike claim building the road through rural land will not help the small growing towns that are in desperate need for infrastructure (fire protection, water, sewer and fixing the roads that are already there) since the concrete turnpike will just connect road to road at a higher speed limit. If there are to be frontage roads and exits where businesses that offer jobs and pay taxes would presumably build, the towns have to provide those and pay for them (and negotiate for the land).
The lifestyle part of this controversy is older than the Trail of Tears. Have you read Aesop’s Fable, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse to your kids or grandkids lately? The country mouse gets the last word on that one: “BETTER BEANS AND BACON IN PEACE THAN CAKES AND ALE IN FEAR.”
Still, rural life is a lifestyle choice mostly lost (and haven’t you heard it ridiculed?) by the city set. Some do think it sounds romantic, until the reality of bumpy roads, farm chores with bugs, manure and snakes, and, of course, spending more time in the car to get to the city (which sometimes is the same time if you are crawling across urban or suburban sprawl from stoplight to stoplight) make it not worth seeing the stars at night, hearing the tree frogs sing and planting deeper roots. Romance is hard.
Country life is strong and hard. And it’s magnetic pull is bringing more of us out to seek the land – and aside from this turnpike issue, is causing other growing pains. The turnpike is proposed to alleviate city traffic for a reliever route. While some rural residents welcome the chance to pay tolls to get to work or city life faster, others plan their lives to drive without a Pikepass account or haul a big supply of quarters. (Currently the toll is 75 cents from Luther to Oklahoma City, but reportedly will increase 16% to Drive Oklahoma Forward with the new projects. That’s a rate hike on all toll roads). Still, the reliever route is not for the residents out here. It’s to help Oklahoma City and cross-country traffic.
The Citizens Against The Loop group have a document called 14 Questions Everyone Needs Answered. The group asked some of the questions Thursday night and handed their document to the media. They were disappointed those questions did not get any print or broadcast time. I have the “space,” so here they are (edited slightly).
See if you can detect the issues in the questions that are asked – “trust, lifestyle and power.”
14 Turnpike Issues Everyone Needs Answered
Document presented by the Citizens Against the Eastern Oklahoma Turnpike Group. Edited for brevity. The document does NOT reflect the views of the Luther Register and is not endorsed by it.
- What role have citizens – both those whose property and houses will be displaced and those not in the party but affected – had in the process?
- Can you explain why this project has been brought forward to suddenly? When in all existing plans from the Governor, OTA and ODOT, there was no mention for an EOC Loop?
- The development of the Creek Turnpike was in many ways similar to this one – similar topography, residential and rural areas. Significant construction delays were caused by legal challenges and environmental concerns and that added substantially to the cost and scope. Yet, OTA states this loop will be completed in four years even though there is no indication any of the preliminary and required impact studies have even begun. What research and noted studies have been done, and where can the public find that information?
- In the OTA’s statements regarding the criteria for the turnpike, there are five criteria for determining the optimum path. 1-“minimization of individual impact on the environment and existing property.” Given that NEOC is diverse geographically – with thousands of acres of farms, a major river, water tables and wildlife habitat, how is OTA working with local, state and national organizations to ensure that the impact meets federal protection and conservation requirements? Those of us who live here either depend on these resources for our livelihood or they are a major part of the reason we choose to live here.
- Former OTA Director Tim Stewart said, “You as a property owner will have lead time if we think we’ll end up having to take your house, field, barn or fence line. You’ll have someone knocking on your door making you the best offer you’re ever going to get on that piece of property.” Can you GUARANTEE this? Can you provide this, in writing?
- Can you tell us what safeguards are in place to prevent a situation like what happened in Pennsylvania that resulted in a grand jury investigation? See Denver Post article.
- Why has OTA relied on special interest groups such as the EOC Partnership, TRUST, Association of Oklahoma General Contractors and Oklahomans for Roads and Bridges – to determine the needs and represent the desires of the driving public, and especially the wants and needs of those in the proposed zone?
- In analyzing the existing plans for road repairs, expansions and development by ODOT (Encompass 2035 Plan) … and various local and county plans, the Eastern Oklahoma county highways historically have received less funds and had fewer capacity improvement projects, than other parts of the metro highway system. The stretches of roads identified as the most dangerous have had the fewest improvements in capacity increase. Plans have long called for widening I-40 to six lands from I-35 East and for capacity improvement to the I-240/I-40 interchange, the I-40 Choctaw Road interchange, and the I-40 Harrah-Newalla Road interchange. How can you justify a North-South turnpike is needed to benefit those in Eastern Oklahoma County, when we desperately need the East-West projects?
- In regards to the turnpike being financed by bonds: Can you at least be honest and add in the cost of the interest to those numbers, since it will be the bond amounts PLUS the interest that Oklahoma Turnpike users, across the state, will have to pay through increased tolls and fees? At the current state interest rate in your Bond Reports, this brings the totals to about $2.7 Billion by the time the bonds are paid out, assuming there are no further increases in the interest rates in the next 40 years.
10.Media reports have the OTA spokesman saying the “turnpike is going to be built.” Care to elaborate? (NOTE: repeatedly at the meeting, officials said the road will be built, but the exact location is not determined).
11. Growth statistics indicate that that where the Kilpatrick Turnpike has been built shows that Northeast OKC is missing out on growth opportunities, because of a lack of a turnpike. In comparing the data from 2011-2014, communities of Harrah, Choctaw, Luther and Jones have kept pace or outpaced growth of several communities on the west side – without a turnpike. Yes, we are growing, and we need infrastructure improvements, but a turnpike is not the solution to the issue.
12. If travel time is the issue, the same Census reports that that travel time to work for ages 16+ has increased in the metro area from 21.2 minutes to 21.9 minutes (45 seconds). Is it possible that if the current ODOT projects already approved were completed this travel time would decrease? Since the EOC Partnership currently states on its website that a reason to do business in the region is the “third shortest commute time of areas of similar size,” how will spending $300 million help? Will that move us up to second or first place?
13. For those who live in Choctaw, average travel time to work is about 26.5 minutes. Those in 73013 zip code, along the Kilpatrick – have a commute of 22.2 minutes. In Yukon and SW OKC along turnpike zip codes, the average commute time is 24 minutes. Two questions: is it possible that the residents of Eastern Oklahoma County understand they have to drive a little further to get to work and willingly accept it? And second, how is a North-South Turnpike going to help alleviate this 2.5 minute difference when most drivers are traveling east-west roads? (NOTE: officials state the “reliever route” is for semis and other interstate traffic, not necessarily just for commuters)
14. Safety. Will the proposed routes include fly-over for existing roads, or will city and county streets be permanently blocked? How will the turnpike impact response times from emergency services departments? (NOTE: this was answered at the meeting, bridges will be built below or over the east-west roads causing no dead-ends.)
The route of the turnpike is not just going through rural areas as the media is reporting this. It will take out whole sub divisions mostly south of East Reno into eastern Oklahoma City down to I-40. Many of the families that settled here are veterans like myself employed in the aerospace industries which support Tinker AFB. There are also many active duty military, reserve and Oklahoma National Guard personnel. I’m sure Governor Fallon and Ron Sharpe do not want to fight the upcoming PR battle that they are taking homes from veterans.
This turnpike alone will not relive congestion on I-35 as Sec. Ridley claims. This would only work if the turnpike went north of I-44 tied into I-35 north of Edmund and went south from I-40 and tied into I-35 south of Norman creating a bypass of the OKC metro. Any north or south of the current turnpike plan should be very aware of this.
Also, how is this going to drive economic development. Who drives on a turnpike and gets off to due local shopping?
And furthermore, we need to get the word out to the fine citizens of the State of Oklahoma, that after this part of the ‘pike is built, the OTA heads to Moore, Norman and part of SW OKC. Is that devastation going to be labeled “minimal impact”?! Hardly.
We need to expose this sham as nothing more than an effort to send our state into even worse financial decline, allow small town business to control like never before and enable so many to profit in personal ventures not ever thought about until now. It would have behooved them to consult with the public, instead of running under cover for their “meetings”. The great people of this community know a scary ride when we see one. And it’s one we refuse to get on and blindly “enjoy”. These towns are not for sale!!
To the question of economic development. Land can not be taken by Eminent Domain for the sake of economic development. Economic development was the original goal and focus of the county and state politicians, business people, and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. Since that would be unsuccessful they are now trying to twist the statistics, change their goal and focus to “giving relief to traffic on I-35”. I don’t believe semi traffic or otherwise, would leave I-35 (a free road), go east (pay a toll) to continue north or south. It doesn’t make any sense at all to me.
I have to agree with SM Sgt. Ed Williams, he is right on. Are there any deals being made for large casino’s along this route.OTA wants to help Oklahoma then do us all a favor , help fix all existing roads and bridges. They are pathetic and an embarrassment .How much money is actually in OTA bank accounts? How about helping schools and teachers? No to turnpike!
You can add me to that military veteran being affected list as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point they try to sell this as a necessity to keep Tinker open, even though there is no indication of Tinker being on a BRAC list that I’m aware of. They’ve switched narratives several times already to no avail, so at some point they’ll play the “it’s for the military” card.
I don’t understand *why* this HAS to be in Oklahoma County – other than OK County wants their “piece of the pie” from the money generated. What about converting HWY 177 to this new Turnpike? Oh I know – because it’s NOT in OK County! I hate the corrupt politics in OK County, but who am I to complain? Just a “nobody” resident like the rest of us…
I had originally mentioned using hwy 177 for the toll road but then someone said “why just leave hwy 177 as a free road and anyone that wants to avoid I-35 traffic can use 177 (for free) ! ” I will continue to support those that do not want a new toll road !!
And another thing: After the Kilpatrick Turnpike was expanded west then south to connect to I-40, beginning approximately at Mercy Hospital heading west then eventually south to I-40, there is very few cars on each side. The large map handed out in Choctaw last week did not show traffic counts in this area-probably because it is not well traveled. Traffic count may increase years from now on this section.
I’m another pissed off Veteran that feels this is being rammed down our throats. I moved here five years ago, retiring after a 26 year career. I don’t WANT to move anymore, nor am I interested in living in a town like Edmond (economically boosted Choctaw?). If I was, I would’ve moved there. I think these guys learned in 1999 to keep everything under wraps. If no one “complains”, everyone MUST be for it.
Shame on you, OTA and government leaders.
I moved to Newalla, closer to Choctaw, in 2009 for a nice quiet life. We built our dream home, brought our first and only child home here, and now will more than likely lose it to this idiocracy. I, too, am a veteran of over 19, and of those 19 years I have lived in Ok for 18 of them. I love this state, but this has really made me reevaluate my future retirement plans of staying here to raise our daughter. I have had many emotions when it comes to this issue and what it boils down to is be prepared. Do the research and like the article says, stay involved. I have done none of those things but must move forward.
Great article Dawn. Keep up the good work. We know you are a straight shooter.
To the veterans, thank you for your service. It is a horrible embarrassment to know our state, county and city governments have chosen to mistreat you after your service and decision to make your forever home right here in eastern Oklahoma County. I am sickened by every action taken by the whole “lot” of them. I probably won’t lose my home but, will be right on the edge possibly with a ramp in my backyard. We had plans after retirement 3 years ago, now everything is on hold and in question. I noticed as I have been out passing out flyers and talking to people as well as scanning the crowd at the meeting last week the enormous amount of silver haired citizens. Yes, many of us set up to retire here and have a forever home. Built shops, garages, craft building, pools, put our personal stamps on or homes and land to enjoy to the end of our lives. So disheartening to have these dreams, hopes and plans pulled right our from under us. We are a mad group and a group for what is right. I think we will be a force to be reckoned with. Everyone, continue to stand up for what is right.
Excellent coverage of the main issues. Hats off to you Dawn Shelton. Hope you can keep these issues updated in future forthcoming articles.
I also am a disabled vietnam veteran living in the proposed path, In my sixties with a wife home on hospice, wondering how I should deal with this ? I no longer have a 60 cal gun to eradicate opposing forces, we worked hard and long to pay for our home, and now you want to pay us your idea of fair market value, a house across the street from us sold for more than 35 k that the the assessor valued ours even though ours is larger and they have been remoledeling the house they bought for last 3 months.. and they have no outbuildings, we have a shop that is worth at least 75 k.. its a screwed up deal. I had four deer run through the yard yesterday morning, why we live here, not new to the area, we have been here since 1991. This is a screwed up deal. Never saw this graft and corruption coming, interesting thing is Harrah and Choctaw are for it but the citizens involved are in unincorporated okla county, no voting rights,, A bunch of B S
My husband drives a semi. Trucking companies & owner operators have to pay heavy usage taxes to each state they drive through. Rumor has it the state tapped into that fund to help pay for the guardian on top of the capital building. Tolls to drive from Joplin, Mo to OKC iOS around $33.00 in addition to this heavy usage tax. He drives all over Oklahoma & sees what his money ISN’T doing. Fixing roads and bridges. OK needs to take care of what they have.
Dawn, this is a very accurate and complete article. Keep up the good work to help us stay informed.