Oklahoma Turnpike Authority puts the brakes to turnpike expansion projects

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Saying lawsuits and an investigative audit have interfered with the agency’s ability to enter the bond market, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority on Tuesday announced a stoppage of all work on its $5 billion long-range plan, ACCESS Oklahoma.

The stoppage, effective Friday, April 14, includes work on the Turner Turnpike as well as the widening and interchange additions on other turnpikes in the state.

“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 OTA Executive Director Tim Gatz told the board in the memo.

His announcement stated that several factors impacted this decision. In recent months, legal matters pending before the Supreme Court, including the “validation” case, and an impending state investigative audit, have prevented access to the bond market. Gatz said the Authority can no longer continue funding work without a clear timetable for access to the bond market.

The OTA will continue normal operations and maintenance to existing toll roads as well as moving forward with the conversion to cashless tolling. OTA will also continue to service existing debt. All of these activities are funded through toll receipts that are consistently meeting or exceeding financial projections while the ACCESS Oklahoma projects are funded through bond proceeds.

“Despite the tremendous transportation needs across the state, I feel it is prudent to take this difficult step,” Gatz said.

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“This is an unfortunate decision that the OTA does not take lightly due to the critical nature of the ACCESS Oklahoma plan and the effect it will have on all our consultants and their employees as well as many Oklahoma communities and businesses that rely on these necessary transportation improvements.”

The announcement added that OTA remains committed to its statutory mission to relieve traffic congestion throughout the state through the construction of legislatively authorized turnpike projects which increase safety for the traveling public in a conservative and fiscally responsible manner.

“Once these roadblocks are resolved and a path to the bond market is cleared, I am confident we will resume ACCESS Oklahoma and begin moving forward on behalf of the people of Oklahoma,” Gatz said.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond immediately responded and called it a “concerning development”, one that causes him to question the leadership and cash flow management at the 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.”