Trust, power and lifestyle.
To oversimplify, the opposition to the Eastern Oklahoma County turnpike project could be boiled down to a few basic issues: trust – or lack of it; power, who has it and why; and lifestyle, rural residents who say they don’t want the expensive road, not in their back yard – not even in their part of the woods.
The anti-EOC group, largely active on the Facebook page, Citizens Opposed to the Eastern Oklahoma County Loop Turnpike Interstate, sprang into action several weeks ago, about the time Oklahoma Turnpike Authority agents began marking private property and roads for the 21-mile “reliever route” turnpike connecting I-44 to I-40. Last Thursday night, hundreds of rural neighbors parked their vehicles up and down the shoulders of Choctaw Road as far as the eye could see, filled the parking lots and overflowed the auditorium, lobby and outdoor patio for a public hearing at Eastern Oklahoma Technology Center. There is also a core group that meets almost daily. They don’t have a paid lobbyist. They don’t have any elected officials on their team. They don’t have much money to buy signs, stickers, mailers and other tools for modern political battle. But they have grit and resolve- the kind it takes to maintain rural property.
And they are suspicious. From petty to conspiratorial, the suspicions show the pervasiveness of a lack of trust: Is the OTA vandalizing our road signs? Did they turn folks away from the meeting because they did not live in the area? Do they know the route already and are not telling us? Who is going to make all of the money? What is the source of their traffic data and is it legitimate? Is the OTA Interim Director and his family financially gaining from the project (an allegation made publicly at the Jan 26 meeting to which the interim director replied to me after the meeting was not only untrue but was an insidious comment).
This issue illustrates perhaps Oklahomans’ general apathy about the government. Look at the other issues affecting our state right now – actually, isn’t it just one issue? Money, and lack of it (or mis-alignment of what they have) to fix crumbling roads and bridges that are NOT turnpikes, fund public education, fix the bleeding corrections and mental health systems and help children who fall into state custody because of parental choices (traced back to poor education, corrections, mental health issues?). The circle keeps spinning. And those problems pre-date the current energy crisis. The OTA says one reason for their continued existence is because the state has chronically underfunded roads and bridges.
Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley, a political appointee, said Thursday night “we screwed up.” He apologized for not communicating the project’s need better before surveyors began marking property in the “study zone” for the road.
Admirable. However, Ridley’s apology was a little bit like “We’re sorry … but.” We should have communicated better, but the road is still coming. “Absolutely,” he said.
So, had the citizens been invited to the big unveiling of the project back in October, would all be swell?
This issue represents a strong civics lesson for everyone. Be aware and involved. There was talk about the project leading up to the unveiling through agendas, and conference table meetings and probably a lot of coffee or chitchat at lobbyist cocktail receptions; and the route has been hinted at for years (remember they tried and failed with a similar project in 1999 with ODOT). Still, most of us are living our lives and not watching our government on any level until there is something to be mad about, and gradually the media has stopped watching too, until there is something to be mad about. As an example, during some of the heated exchanges at the Thursday meeting (you know, the stuff that makes great news!), I whispered to one of the TV reporters, “how much time will you get for this at 10 pm?” She said about a minute. ONE MINUTE! That’s how it is. The Luther Register is one small outlet aiming to get back into the game, not hindered by broadcast time nor printed space, or a pesky editor. Living the “starving” journalist’s dream, I tell you.
The citizens feel unheard and unarmed. Even State Sen. Ron Sharp said he hasn’t returned constituent calls. “Several of you contacted my office and the reason I didn’t directly respond to you is because I didn’t know,” said the Shawnee Republican.
Sharp went on to tell the crowd at the hearing that as a member of the Choctaw nation, his family was forced to move to Oklahoma from Mississippi in the 1830s – you remember that’s a part of our history involving the Trail of Tears (that incidentally involved a treaty). A hundred years later, he said his grandfather was booted off of his land again to make Lake Texoma. So Sharp wants everyone to know he gets it … but.
“I am scared to death. We need all the help we can get to save jobs here in the State of Oklahoma. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know this is emotional. I am very frightened for our state. We have to keep our schools open. I am here for you. We’ll do all we can to help you in this process,” said Sharp.
Some opponents of the turnpike claim building the road through rural land will not help the small growing towns that are in desperate need for infrastructure (fire protection, water, sewer and fixing the roads that are already there) since the concrete turnpike will just connect road to road at a higher speed limit. If there are to be frontage roads and exits where businesses that offer jobs and pay taxes would presumably build, the towns have to provide those and pay for them (and negotiate for the land).
The lifestyle part of this controversy is older than the Trail of Tears. Have you read Aesop’s Fable, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse to your kids or grandkids lately? The country mouse gets the last word on that one: “BETTER BEANS AND BACON IN PEACE THAN CAKES AND ALE IN FEAR.”
Still, rural life is a lifestyle choice mostly lost (and haven’t you heard it ridiculed?) by the city set. Some do think it sounds romantic, until the reality of bumpy roads, farm chores with bugs, manure and snakes, and, of course, spending more time in the car to get to the city (which sometimes is the same time if you are crawling across urban or suburban sprawl from stoplight to stoplight) make it not worth seeing the stars at night, hearing the tree frogs sing and planting deeper roots. Romance is hard.
Country life is strong and hard. And it’s magnetic pull is bringing more of us out to seek the land – and aside from this turnpike issue, is causing other growing pains. The turnpike is proposed to alleviate city traffic for a reliever route. While some rural residents welcome the chance to pay tolls to get to work or city life faster, others plan their lives to drive without a Pikepass account or haul a big supply of quarters. (Currently the toll is 75 cents from Luther to Oklahoma City, but reportedly will increase 16% to Drive Oklahoma Forward with the new projects. That’s a rate hike on all toll roads). Still, the reliever route is not for the residents out here. It’s to help Oklahoma City and cross-country traffic.
The Citizens Against The Loop group have a document called 14 Questions Everyone Needs Answered. The group asked some of the questions Thursday night and handed their document to the media. They were disappointed those questions did not get any print or broadcast time. I have the “space,” so here they are (edited slightly).
See if you can detect the issues in the questions that are asked – “trust, lifestyle and power.”
14 Turnpike Issues Everyone Needs Answered
Document presented by the Citizens Against the Eastern Oklahoma Turnpike Group. Edited for brevity. The document does NOT reflect the views of the Luther Register and is not endorsed by it.
- What role have citizens – both those whose property and houses will be displaced and those not in the party but affected – had in the process?
- Can you explain why this project has been brought forward to suddenly? When in all existing plans from the Governor, OTA and ODOT, there was no mention for an EOC Loop?
- The development of the Creek Turnpike was in many ways similar to this one – similar topography, residential and rural areas. Significant construction delays were caused by legal challenges and environmental concerns and that added substantially to the cost and scope. Yet, OTA states this loop will be completed in four years even though there is no indication any of the preliminary and required impact studies have even begun. What research and noted studies have been done, and where can the public find that information?
- In the OTA’s statements regarding the criteria for the turnpike, there are five criteria for determining the optimum path. 1-“minimization of individual impact on the environment and existing property.” Given that NEOC is diverse geographically – with thousands of acres of farms, a major river, water tables and wildlife habitat, how is OTA working with local, state and national organizations to ensure that the impact meets federal protection and conservation requirements? Those of us who live here either depend on these resources for our livelihood or they are a major part of the reason we choose to live here.
- Former OTA Director Tim Stewart said, “You as a property owner will have lead time if we think we’ll end up having to take your house, field, barn or fence line. You’ll have someone knocking on your door making you the best offer you’re ever going to get on that piece of property.” Can you GUARANTEE this? Can you provide this, in writing?
- Can you tell us what safeguards are in place to prevent a situation like what happened in Pennsylvania that resulted in a grand jury investigation? See Denver Post article.
- Why has OTA relied on special interest groups such as the EOC Partnership, TRUST, Association of Oklahoma General Contractors and Oklahomans for Roads and Bridges – to determine the needs and represent the desires of the driving public, and especially the wants and needs of those in the proposed zone?
- In analyzing the existing plans for road repairs, expansions and development by ODOT (Encompass 2035 Plan) … and various local and county plans, the Eastern Oklahoma county highways historically have received less funds and had fewer capacity improvement projects, than other parts of the metro highway system. The stretches of roads identified as the most dangerous have had the fewest improvements in capacity increase. Plans have long called for widening I-40 to six lands from I-35 East and for capacity improvement to the I-240/I-40 interchange, the I-40 Choctaw Road interchange, and the I-40 Harrah-Newalla Road interchange. How can you justify a North-South turnpike is needed to benefit those in Eastern Oklahoma County, when we desperately need the East-West projects?
- In regards to the turnpike being financed by bonds: Can you at least be honest and add in the cost of the interest to those numbers, since it will be the bond amounts PLUS the interest that Oklahoma Turnpike users, across the state, will have to pay through increased tolls and fees? At the current state interest rate in your Bond Reports, this brings the totals to about $2.7 Billion by the time the bonds are paid out, assuming there are no further increases in the interest rates in the next 40 years.
10.Media reports have the OTA spokesman saying the “turnpike is going to be built.” Care to elaborate? (NOTE: repeatedly at the meeting, officials said the road will be built, but the exact location is not determined).
11. Growth statistics indicate that that where the Kilpatrick Turnpike has been built shows that Northeast OKC is missing out on growth opportunities, because of a lack of a turnpike. In comparing the data from 2011-2014, communities of Harrah, Choctaw, Luther and Jones have kept pace or outpaced growth of several communities on the west side – without a turnpike. Yes, we are growing, and we need infrastructure improvements, but a turnpike is not the solution to the issue.
12. If travel time is the issue, the same Census reports that that travel time to work for ages 16+ has increased in the metro area from 21.2 minutes to 21.9 minutes (45 seconds). Is it possible that if the current ODOT projects already approved were completed this travel time would decrease? Since the EOC Partnership currently states on its website that a reason to do business in the region is the “third shortest commute time of areas of similar size,” how will spending $300 million help? Will that move us up to second or first place?
13. For those who live in Choctaw, average travel time to work is about 26.5 minutes. Those in 73013 zip code, along the Kilpatrick – have a commute of 22.2 minutes. In Yukon and SW OKC along turnpike zip codes, the average commute time is 24 minutes. Two questions: is it possible that the residents of Eastern Oklahoma County understand they have to drive a little further to get to work and willingly accept it? And second, how is a North-South Turnpike going to help alleviate this 2.5 minute difference when most drivers are traveling east-west roads? (NOTE: officials state the “reliever route” is for semis and other interstate traffic, not necessarily just for commuters)
14. Safety. Will the proposed routes include fly-over for existing roads, or will city and county streets be permanently blocked? How will the turnpike impact response times from emergency services departments? (NOTE: this was answered at the meeting, bridges will be built below or over the east-west roads causing no dead-ends.)