The office space where the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is temporarily housed at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City is just a couple of miles from the home where Neal McCaleb was born almost 80 years ago. A second generation road builder – his Dad built bridges for the state beginning in 1921. Eventually, Neal McCaleb would lead both the Oklahoma Department of Transporattion and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. With current OTA Director Tim Stewart leaving the state for a job in Colorado this month, McCaleb is filling in until a new director comes on the job at a time when the OTA will lead the biggest turnpike project in state history.
Word of the new project was announced in late October 2015 with many state and local government leaders applauding the effort to “Driving Forward Oklahoma.” Within a few weeks, protest groups made up of landowners in the path of these roads to the future began organizing. The Citizens Opposed to the Eastern Oklahoma County Turnpike group launched an online petition with the political group moveon.org, and gathered 2,000 “online signatures” in short order.
In the midst of neighbors trying to get answers, and the Drive Forward campaign paving ahead, McCaleb sat for an interview with The Luther Register (LR) much of which is transcribed here. Editor’s Note: the following is edited for clarity but reflects the basic course of the conversation.
Neal McCaleb: (laughs) Because they asked me. You know I’m an old civil engineer. I love to build roads and this is a very large road building project for Oklahoma City and Tulsa and along the Turner Turnpike. It’s the largest bond issue we’ve every contemplated; almost a billion dollars.
It’s a major new addition to the OKC circulation system.
What might be different with this project and those before, is technology has improved the ability for citizens to use tools like online petitions to voice concerns. As of today there are about 2,000 “signers” on the online petition. How do you react to that concern?
A lot of them (signers) are out of state. But it gets our attention and I understand some of them are coming to our Authority meeting on January 26.
I think first of all we need to get clarification. Right now everyone thinks an alignment somewhere between Nicoma Park and Harrah. Actually the study area is a narrow corridor; it’s one mile on each side of Peebly Road. So if their property is outside of that, they’re not even in study area.
When I say study area, we are doing aerial photography for topographic information so that we can determine what the grades are going to be as well as identify cultural improvements, homes and improvements on the ground. One of our criteria is to miss the homes wherever possible. And to consider the environmental impact – both the bunnies and the people. And the fourth is the how to optimize the traffic and therefore the revenue. We are building the facility to divert traffic off of I-35 in Oklahoma City, as well as to respond to a perceived need in the communities for economic development they feel like has been left out because of no south corridor, specifically the Eastern Oklahoma County Coalitiion.
What more can you say about the start and end points?
I call it the logical termini at either end. At the south end, the closer we can get to the I-240 junction, the more sense it makes for traffic. In all probability, the southern termini will be displaced someplace to the west from that corridor, east of Choctaw Road and west of Peebly Road.
And on the north, we have to have some space between the Luther interchange that is just now being completed and the new interchange which will probably be somewhat east of that corridor. That sounds a little vague. We have to have a certain distance between the ramps, coming off of this going into I-44 and another going up I-44. And we have to have the space between where the ramp ends on this road and where it begins on Luther.
Time frame? Is the publicized four years really going to happen?
I think we will have it essentially complete in four years. Maybe faster than that. We built the first section of the JKT (John Kilpatrick Turnpike) in just a little over two years, and the second section in two years, from scratch.
This is not your first “rodeo” when it comes to turnpike projects and citizen’s protests. How do you address these issues?
Nobody likes to have their lifestyle impinged upon. Actually the ultimate improvement corridor will be about 300 feet wide by the time of the improvement. Some of the communities would like to have frontage roads for development and that will add 50 feet. Local communities make that determination.
When you plan, how much do you budget to build and how much to buy the land (and battle the likely legal proceedings with eminent domain)?
Well, these are guesstimates at best. That’s why we say we are doing the study because we are trying to quantify what that will be. Once we sell the bonds, that’s all we have. We have to cut the suit to fit the cloth. So, quite a bit of careful planning goes in. Trying to quantify the right of way is imponderable for me at this point. A lot of the area is going to be just woodlands but some of it is going to be improved properties, and there’s a vast difference in what that costs.
How does the negotiation process work?
Once the right of way is delineated, we hire a “right of way” consultant experienced in this area. They make estimate on what the property is worth. If it’s all woodlands, it’s going to be a lot less than improved property. They go out and make an offer with the property owner. Typically the property owner doesn’t like it. And so they try to negotiate for a price they will sell it for voluntarily. Failing in that, we have the right to eminent domain; we can’t jog the highway around to accommodate every person so there will be the use of eminent domain.
First we try to make a deal from a willing buyer and a willing seller. Actually, we do pretty well on that. I’d say probably 65 to 70% will be volunteer transactions.
For the others, those folks will have to go into eminent domain. There’s a specific process once it’s a lawsuit, because eminent domain is a legal proceeding in the district court. The court appoints commissioners, you can think of as appraisers, and they go out look at specific property and they make three independent valuations of what it’s worth. And they submit the commissioner’s report to the court. From that, the court makes a determination of what the fair compensation to the property owner is. These commissioners are not our employees, they’re independent.
Do the pleas of these landowners tug at your heart strings?
I’ll just go back and take examples from the past. I think of the Creek as a good example because we went through neighborhoods. There was a very local organization called Tulsans Against Turnpikes. They were very well meaning and motivated.
One of the points they made is that if we built the turnpike, people wouldn’t buy next to the turnpike. Not. They did. It’s fully developed. There’s houses all along there, and most were built after the turnpike.
So, most people’s vision of the impact on them is exaggerated by the unknown.
What we fear most is what we don’t know, like the little kid afraid of the dark. I don’t mean to make small of this, when something happens to me that is out of my control that will affect my life and my lifestyle, I get anxious about it with good cause. As it progresses on, and the study develops into a definitive alignment and the alignment into definitive plans for construction and the construction takes place and people begin to see the benefits that accrue to the area; it minimizes the impact on the number of people because it’s just so few affected in comparison to those who think they might be affected. That’s one reason why I wanted to refine the corridor study.
Let me tell you a story about Tulsans Against Turnpikes in 1987. They decided to come to Oklahoma City and hold a press conference on the state capitol steps to protest. They got a caravan to come to the city, and as a matter of principle, they drove down old Highway 66 instead of the turnpike. They got there 20 minutes late, and the cameras were all gone. This illustrates the point: turnpikes are to expedite travel, improve safety and reduce stress and increase commerce, especially when you have frontage roads.
What advice do you have for citizens potentially affected by this project?
Give us a little time to get the studies done, so you can see what the real proposal is going to look like.
Do you read any of the comments?
I don’t go to moveon.org very much. But you know, we expect the group that is going to come to the turnpike meeting on the 26th to appoint a spokesman. We’re not going to let everybody that wants to stand up to speak because there’s not that much time. But one person they designate as a spokesman can address the turnpike with their concerns.
Remind us what the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is? It doesn’t use state tax dollars, so this money can’t be used for other needed things in the state as some suggest?
It’s a mechanism which we built major routes that ODOT (Oklahoma Department of Transportation) will never be able to build because it is historically underfunded.
The turnpike system, approved by the voters of the State of Oklahoma, is able to borrow money against future revenues to build these important arteries of commerce like the JKT in Oklahoma City which within 22 years we had to expand to six lanes because traffic demand was so high.
Funding by bonds and tolls. Are the bonds hard to sell? And who buys them?
A lot of them are sold to Oklahomans. Because in Oklahoma, you have a double tax deduction. They are tax free bonds. You don’t pay taxes on the interest, either federal or state. So there’s a lot of people in Oklahoma who buy them, but there’s a big national market for them also.
We already have people knocking on the door to buy them. Never has been a problem. We have one of the highest credit ratings of any turnpike system in the country.
The interest rate depends on the tax bracket. Interest rates are probably about two percent right now but depending on the tax bracket, the yield on it will probably be four and half or five percent. They are good long-term investments. They appreciate in value, typically because this Authority has been well-managed over its 60-year history. We don’t build roads for political purposes. We build roads where the traffic is going to support it and pay for the bonds.
- Drive Forward Oklahoma website with news releases about the project.
- Landowner’s Bill of Rights from the Oklahoma Attorney General (published 2012).
- History of Oklahoma Turnpikes (from the OTA)
- History of Tollroads in the state (from Oklahoma Historical Society)