The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority contends it can alter routes of statutorily authorized toll road projects as the state Supreme Court weighs the validity of bonds to begin funding a $5 billion, 15-year extension project. 

The state agency sought the court’s approval in August for $500 million of revenue bonds for the ACCESS (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) Oklahoma program, which has been the target of litigation brought by property owners in its path.

The high court ordered OTA late last month to address the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s denial in January of the turnpike’s application to have the South Extension cross two sections of the federal agency’s property because it does not meet the congressionally authorized purposes of the land.

Specifically, the court asked how it could evaluate OTA’s statutory authority to construct the South Extension if the turnpike is forced to modify the direction of the proposed alignment to avoid the federal property.

In a response filed with the court Thursday, OTA said the state legislature recognizes the potential for rerouting and that it would be “both imprudent and impractical” to seek legislative authorization “to move a potential route by one or a few hundred feet each time an obstacle arises.” OTA also noted alignment design modifications occurred with its most recent projects that were subject to the court’s bond validation in 2016 and 2018.

“Upon validation of the bonds by the court, the authority will resume discussions with Reclamation to adjust the alignment of the South Extension Turnpike, which may necessitate movement of the alignment westward to avoid Reclamation’s fee title land,” OTA’s said.

Tassie Katherine Hirschfeld, a member of Oklahomans for Responsible Transportation, which has been challenging the projects, said OTA’s court filing indicates it has no respect for the deliberative processes of the state Supreme Court, the Oklahoma State Legislature, or the Bureau of Reclamation.

“The OTA’s language makes it clear they believe they should be allowed to borrow billions of dollars for highway construction with no oversight and no accountability,” she said in a statement.

OTA was also asked by the high court to respond to issues raised by attorneys in one of the property owner lawsuits concerning OTA’s expired conditional bond approval from the Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight.

“If this court validates the bonds as requested by the authority, the same application that was originally submitted to the (oversight council) can and will be submitted for approval,” OTA said in the filing, adding it will revise its application if required by the court’s decision.  

In April, OTA halted construction work on projects over concerns about its access to the municipal bond market in the wake of ongoing litigation and an investigative audit of the agency ordered by the state attorney general.

The high court ruled last month in the turnpike’s favor in two lawsuits challenging the ACCESS program.

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