Transportation planning is constantly in motion. That’s why transportation professionals don’t often live in the moment as we’re determining how to meet the state’s infrastructure needs 15 years and even 30 years from now. And those needs are complex. Improving state infrastructure for the future will require an integrated approach using all modes of transportation from highways to turnpikes to rail to waterways and transit.
While Oklahoma has made significant strides in improving its highway infrastructure during the past 15 years thanks to increased funding from the Legislature, billions more in improvements are needed to fully bring state transportation to modern safety standards. Waiting on state and federal dollars to address all of these needs means some areas may never see relief from congestion or see improvements to infrastructure that has been pressed into service long past its intended lifespan.
Those are just a couple of the many reasons why the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority announced in December a new, 15-year, long-range plan to reinvest in the existing turnpike network and construct legislatively approved routes to improve safety and access to communities. The authority is a resource in the Oklahoma transportation network and is deemed an essential governmental function in state statute. While tolling cannot address all infrastructure needs, it represents a user-based revenue stream to gradually pay for the construction and maintenance of roads as they are used. It also allows the implementation of well-defined and critically needed transportation system improvements that otherwise would not be possible.
Decades ago, insightful leaders envisioned these new turnpike route extensions because they were confident Oklahoma would grow into its status as the crossroads of America. They foresaw a need for reliever routes to help move traffic safely and efficiently around the Oklahoma City area.
Related: Oklahoma promised to make toll roads free. After 75 years, here’s where that promise stands.
Since the plan’s announcement, there has been intense speculation and massive misinformation as to the authority’s intent and the need for these transportation improvements.
Let me be clear: The only reason to pursue the long-range plan is to meet existing safety and transportation needs for all motorists who use our state highways and turnpikes. The authority cannot build a new route unless it is authorized by the Oklahoma Legislature. All routes are listed in statute and are subject to further approval by the Oklahoma Transportation Commission, which oversees the state Transportation Department.
The turnpike authority also presents new turnpike extensions to the Oklahoma Supreme Court in a bond validation proceeding where the authority must demonstrate its fiscal responsibility and comply with legislative intent. The proceeding provides a judicial determination that the authority’s actions regarding location, financing and construction comply with law.
Also: Turnpike authority promises to work with residents over expansion plans targeting their homes
The turnpike authority must follow and satisfy a multitude of state and federal environmental laws and regulations before construction. Some of those requirements include following the provisions of the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and the Land and Water Conservation Act in addition to state requirements related to water quality, pollution and stormwater. Any projects that include federal funds or ties to an interstate highway also trigger the National Environmental Policy Act guidelines.
While infrastructure investments are critical to enhance travel time reliability and lessen growing congestion, crashes and fatalities, the decision to construct these projects is not one I, nor anyone at the authority, takes lightly. The turnpike authority makes great effort to be diligent and fair in its dealings with those impacted. It follows all federal and state laws pertaining to property acquisition and negotiates in good faith to purchase necessary right-of-way at fair market value, while minimizing the taking of homes and property.
More: ACCESS Oklahoma funding approved, but not for Norman turnpike expansion
Ultimately, having a comprehensive plan to address these recognized transportation needs is overdue. The long-range plan represented by ACCESS Oklahoma is the most appropriate context to develop and deliver these needed improvements. The included projects will provide relief and indispensable connections throughout the state without overburdening resources directed to tax-supported highways. When completed, the turnpike enhancements and expansions will directly benefit the safety of the traveling public and support Oklahoma’s innovation, commerce and economy for decades to come.
Another viewpoint: Should hundreds of Oklahoma families be forced from homes for sake of toll roads?
Tim Gatz is Oklahoma secretary of transportation and serves as executive director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and the Oklahoma Transportation Department.