LS Attorney On a road to ‘who knows where’ : Attorneys urge high court to deny OTA’s turnpike plans | News

On a road to ‘who knows where’ : Attorneys urge high court to deny OTA’s turnpike plans | News

Attorneys who represent Norman residents in a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority have urged the Oklahoma Supreme Court to deny the agency’s plans after the route for two proposed routes in Norman remain uncertain.

Included in a $5 billion turnpike expansion plan, OTA intends to build a toll road along Indian Hills Road to connect to the South Extension turnpike in the Lake Thunderbird Watershed.

The plans drew outrage from residents who filed a lawsuit last year, which alleges OTA does not have legislative authority to build them, and OTA has tried to improperly fund them. Turnpike projects are authorized by state statute.

The lawsuit is before the Oklahoma Supreme Court after a district judge ruled the arguments coincided with the high court’s role in validating the use of bonds for the agency.

In a court brief, justices asked OTA to explain in a response how the court could grant validation and settle the arguments if OTA’s final route has not been determined in the light of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to deny its application to cross the watershed.

The bureau owns the lake and decreases to grant permission to access fee title lands, but stated in a letter on Jan. 17 to OTA that it would consider accessing some easements. OTA has not resubmitted an application or amended the existing one, an agency spokesperson told The Transcript recently.

Where will it go?

Co-counsel for the opposition group Pike Off OTA, Elaine Dowling, urged justices to pass on validating the bonds until an evidentiary hearing could be held on the undetermined routes.

“OTA’s refusal to deal with the Bureau of Reclamation in a timely and responsible manner is putting this state on a $5 billion road to who knows where,” Dowling’s response to the court read.

OTA revised to the high court last month that it is the agency’s discretion to alter routes, which often fall within a few hundred yards.

Dowling told the court in her response the bureau’s denial would mean the agency must move the routes by miles, not by 200 yards.

She produced a sworn statement by her client, Amy Cerrato to that fact. Cerrato is a civil engineering professor at the University of Oklahoma, whose property is affected by the proposed east Norman route.

Dowling stated if Cerrato’s projections were correct, the lake route would move west 2.5 miles and force the Indian Hills Road connector to move as far north as SW 89th Street – far outside the “vicinity of Moore and Norman,” which state law dictates as the intended path for that route.

Co-counsel Rob Norman has argued that the Indian Hills connector is codified under state law, but should have been built under one bond issuance with other projects according to the statute.

Unauthorized routes?

He and Dowling also argue that the language in state law does not include a route through the lake’s watershed nor a connection to Purcell.

Attorney for the city of Norman, Joe Lester, concurred.

“OTA claims absolute power to construct turnpikes wherever it desires, without regard to any legislative authorization,” Lester’s brief to the court reads. “Until the Legislature adopts a statute expressly authorizing construction and operation of a roadway from Purcell to Norman, all of OTA’s plans, concepts and desires cannot serve as a basis for the funding authorization OTA seeks from this court.”

Dowling argued that affected residents had not been properly notified because the initial advertisement in a legal newspaper was now invalid in view of routes that had to change.

Norman wrote to the court that OTA’s move to “put the cart before the horse” despite the challenges to the toll road constitutes due process rights violations.

“…these citizens would probably be deprived of any right to contest the surprise new route,” he said.

Both Dowling and Norman also contended for OTA should have approval from the Council of Bond Oversight before rushing its application to the high court for bond validation. The council granted conditional authority to seek an initial round of financing, provided OTA won lawsuits filed against the agency or were dismissed in its favour.

The council’s approval lapsed in February 2023 but OTA did not file 180 day extension.

“Ultimately, the answer to whether this court can validate bonds for the OTA’s new turnpike alignments is a resounding no,” Norman’s response to the court reads. “In light of the OTA’s federal lands problems, we now have no idea where these routes may end up having to go, even if they were legislatively authorized.”

OTA has maintained its routes fall within the state statute and despite claims that turnpike projects should have been built in one bond issuance, has said previous bond validations for the last several years by the high court prove otherwise.