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Protesters rally at State Capitol to fight against proposed turnpikes

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"We're not rooftops! We're people!" chanted anti-turnpike protesters

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahomans concerned about proposed turnpikes in Oklahoma, specifically one in Eastern Oklahoma County, held a second protest rally Wednesday at the Oklahoma Capitol, and their message was clear.

Close to 100 opponents rallied against the eastern Oklahoma County turnpike loop that will connect Interstate 44 to the Turner Turnpike. They converged in force to let legislators know they felt the turnpike was not just unneeded, but would displace families, disrupt the peace and was, in some cases, unethical to even consider.

Susan Johnson of Harrah, who lives along the proposed loop, said that the citizens in the area neither want nor need the turnpike and that people are losing their homes.

“They say 80 rooftops will be affected, but they aren’t counting mobile homes,” she said. “But we’re not just rooftops. We’re people. We have families. We have our land. We don’t need this turnpike, and we certainly don’t need it now.”

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has offered plans for new turnpike projects in Oklahoma, including extension of the Kilpatrick Turnpike would run to southwest Oklahoma City at a cost of $190 million.

The controversial eastern Oklahoma County loop is expected to carry a price tag of $300 million.

A system-wide toll increase of up to 16 percent is being considered to pay for the new toll roads.

On Wednesday, the protesters said they hoped legislators would listen to their concerns.

ROAD RAGE

In April, residents in eastern Oklahoma County were shown the final route of the proposed loop. While the OTA originally projected that 103 homes would be affected by the 22-mile- long route, the new route dropped that number to 80.

According to the OTA, the Northeast Oklahoma County Loop project “is on track to improve public safety on Oklahoma roadways and for local communities.”

In a statement released April 14, the OTA said, “This design alignment serves as the best way for us to connect Eastern Oklahoma County to vital intersections for travel, while minimizing the impact on rooftops, existing property and the environment.”

Many residents in the area expressed concern about losing their property through eminent domain or having a tollroad too close to their homes.

Steve Maguire is among those worried.

“This is terrible, and we need to stop it,” he said. “This turnpike is unnecessary, but there are other insidious things going on. We have 604 miles of toll road in Oklahoma, second only to the state of New York, which has six times the population.”

He added that the quality of roads and highways in Oklahoma is among the worst in the nation, ranking 49th .

“This highway is not necessary. To put people out of their homes for something like that is criminal,” he said.

Also present at the rally was Joe Kreke, a new Harrah Council member, who said the citizens he talked to do not want the turnpike at all. His own home is also close to the proposed route.

NOT JUST CITIZENS

In 2015, Gov. Mary Fallin and the state turnpike officials unveiled plans for six Oklahoma turnpike projects, two of which included new toll roads in the Oklahoma City area. The cost of the projects is estimated at a combined $892 million, officials said.

According to Gary Ridley, who served as Transportation Secretary, Transportation Department Director and Turnpike Authority Director until March 31, 2015, said the six new projects would funded by bond issues to be paid back with toll road revenues and that a “modest” system-wide toll increase of approximately 16 percent could be implemented in 2017 or 2018 to help pay for the improvements.

However, many in attendance at the rally Wednesday said the lack of transparency surrounding the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and who holds the bonds used to fund the turnpikes is concerning.

“I would say if you took a poll today, 90 percent of Oklahomans think that the OTA is an Oklahoma agency,” said former gubernatorial candidate Gary Richardson. “Ninety percent would say that Oklahoma makes money off the turnpikes and that isn’t true. We don’t make the money – the bond holders do.”

Gary Richardson speaks to anti-turnpike protesters on Wednesday. (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

Five decades ago, the state legislature passed a bill that made who the bond holders are confidential, he said.

“Why is it still a secret 50 years later,” Richardson said. “The only way the OTA can be audited is by a request from the governor. Guess how many governors have asked for an audit in 50 years? That’s right – none.”

Earlier this month, State Rep. Lewis Moore of Edmond, said he wanted a viability study over transportation funding before approving any work for the turnpike loop in eastern Oklahoma County. In addition, he said he also wanted a change to the way turnpikes are funded, noting that in the 1960s, the original plan was to make turnpikes free once they were paid off.

“Cross-pledging” was then instituted , allowing tolls on current turnpikes to be used to pay for new turnpikes or until all turnpikes in the state were paid off. Opponents worry that with additional toll roads being proposed, the turnpikes would never be free.

According to a statement released by Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, that same cross pledging resulted in both the Kilpatrick and Creek turnpikes. However, of the 10 toll roads in the state, many have not met five-year revenue projections.

The Kilpatrick Turnpike in Oklahoma City generated less than 29 percent of the projected amount during the first five years, while the Will Rogers Turnpike from Tulsa to Missouri averaged 46 percent of the projection, according to a study by The Oklahoman.

“Twenty other states in our nation have zero turnpikes, and they make it just fine,” said Richardson. “We have to have a governor who is willing to change things.”

State Rep. Richard Morrissette (D-Oklahoma City) also spoke to the group, sharing his opposition to Oklahoma’s toll system.

“This turnpike is a bad idea,” he said. “The way the toll system was supposed to work is that the toll is in place until it’s paid off. In 35 years, has anyone seen that happen? You all march into that building and let them hear you.”

State Sen. Al McAffrey urged those present to “camp out” in legislators’ offices.

“Tell them no more turnpikes. The turnpike from Shawnee to the Turner Turnpike is the most asinine thing I’ve seen,” he said. “Why put a turnpike somewhere that no one uses for years? Tell your legislators that now is not the time to make decisions that benefit other people on the backs of Oklahomans.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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