The Secretary of Transportation, Oklahoma Turnpike officials, State senators and representatives, Oklahoma County elected officials and staffers, mayors of Choctaw and Jones, as well as most of the Luther Town Board and the fire chief stood under a sunny sky with January wind to officially open the last two of four toll gates at the Luther Exchange at Turner Turnpike and Hogback Road.
Before the throng ceremonially cut the ribbon, there were lots of hugs and handshakes and applause for the nearly $11 million project that was approved in 2014 to give access to the toll road to and from Tulsa without having to swing further east to exit at Wellston, or have to drive all the way to the city if you missed the Wellston Exit. (Anyone else done this?)
Meanwhile, across Hogback Road, a small contingency of protesters against a separate project, the newly proposed Eastern Oklahoma County turnpike corridor, held signs in silent protest as the politicians arrived. Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley crossed the road to shake their hands, listen and apologize. Although he said this corridor has been talked about on and off for at least 20 years on various levels, and was formally announced last October, the Driving Forward Oklahoma team should have sought public input sooner.
Secretary Ridley echoed what was promised Tuesday at the OTA Board meeting, public hearings will commence very soon (perhaps the second full week of February, one will likely be in Harrah).
“We are going to explain why we need to do this and that certainly is open to opinions by people. We are going to hear from you as to what the sensitive areas out there are that you do not want a new road to interfere with. We want to hear from you.
“You know more about the area than we do. Protesting is fine; it’s part of our country to be able to do that. I just want you to know we are not dismissing the issue that you had. You have legitimate concerns and we need to hear what they are,” said Secretary Ridley who serves on Gov. Mary Fallin’s cabinet.
Listening to him in the biting cold, Nancy Nolder said she moved to her retirement home on South Peebly Road just a couple of years ago.
She asked Ridley, “How do you put us at ease to be able to move forward and understand what’s going on?”
At the public hearings, Ridley said, “We’ll have engineers there and maps on the table of the area where people can circle their property or point out a cemetery or a school or something else to avoid when building the corridor.”
Since Peebly seems to be the only road marked, Nolder asked if it was too late to make a difference?
“No. It’s not,” said Ridley.
“Are you sure? That’s what we’re so scared about,” she said.
“Im telling you the absolute truth. There is no definite lines on a map for a corridor. When we flew it we were looking at a two or three mile swath as to how we might be able to snake the road through there from what we might see from the air. Now we need to hear from you … the people on the ground,” he said.
Meanwhile, some signs of another sort were being dispersed back at the ribbon cutting, produced by OTA to promote the project.
But back to the Luther Exchange opening, Oklahoma County Commissioner Willa Johnson said the project was a long time coming. Jones Mayor Ray Poland said the new exchange will save him about 20 minutes of travel time to his mother’s house in Bixby, as a joke to show his appreciation for the new gates that will add convenience and safety to many trips for many motorists.
At perhaps his final public gesture as executive director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority Tim Stewart credited patience and collaboration for the project. See his comments here. He is leaving OTA to lead Colorado’s turnpike system.
The 10 am ceremony was over by 10:30 am, too early for many of the esteemed visitors to visit Luther for lunch. But there was a sighting of State Senator Ron Sharp at Josephine’s Cafe.