Oklahoma Turnpike extension opponents lay out case against bonds

Property owners in the path of Oklahoma Turnpike extensions contend their litigation should prevent a state oversight board’s approval of initial bonds for the $5 billion, 15-year plan.

The Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight had been scheduled to consider up to $450 million of new Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) revenue bonds and $50 million of refunding bonds on Thursday, but that meeting was postponed due to the lack of a quorum. 

Alexandra Edwards, the state deputy treasurer for debt management, said the bonds are expected to be on the agenda for the yet-to-be-rescheduled meeting. 

Property owners fighting extensions of the Oklahoma Turnpike are trying to prevent approval by a state oversight panel of initial bonds for the project.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation

In written memos to the council, lawyers for extension opponents said the council requires certification from state agencies that there is no pending or threatened litigation to proposed debt. They said OTA’s legal counsel claimed the validity of the Series 2022A bonds is not being challenged in court despite a lawsuit filed in May in Cleveland County District Court. 

“Pike Off’s lawsuit explicitly states that the OTA is not legally authorized to bond, fund, and build the three new ACCESS turnpikes, and it requests declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting the OTA issuing any bonds for the building and construction of the new Access Turnpikes,” attorney Robert Norman said in the memo.

The council, he added, was aware of the litigation in May when it approved the OTA’s request for a $200 million revolving line of credit to jumpstart funding for the ACCESS  (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) plan, but prohibited the proceeds from being tapped for projects being challenged in Cleveland County District Court.  

“Nothing has changed on the question of pending litigation since the council made its previous decision,” Norman’s memo stated. “The OTA has still not provided any legitimate reason
why the council should allow the OTA to use debt financing, whether a line of credit or a
bond issue, to fund the three new turnpikes.”

At its June meeting, the OTA board terminated the unused line of credit with Wells Fargo and approved $950 million of bonds for ACCESS Oklahoma. The board also sanctioned a plan to seek validation of the bonds from the Oklahoma Supreme Court after obtaining oversight council approval of the debt.

OTA General Counsel Eric Lair’s letter, which was part of the agency’s application to the council, said the bonds’ validity or the authority’s proceedings related to their issuance were not the subject of litigation. Lair acknowledged the lawsuit, saying it “questions the authority’s legislative authorization to undertake” three projects — the Outer Loop–East-West Connector, Outer Loop–Tri-City Connector, and the South Extension — and “seeks to enjoin the OTA from undertaking efforts to design, construct and operate the challenged turnpike projects.”

The OTA, which assembled a team to sell the bonds as soon as December, filed motions to dismiss two lawsuits brought by property owners, contending that the state supreme court has exclusive original jurisdiction over challenges made in the Pike Off case and that claims in the other lawsuit, which alleges Open Meeting Act violations, were legally insufficient. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt officially unveiled ACCESS Oklahoma in February, calling it “a bold investment in our future that provides needed corridor connections and expansions while making travel easier and leading to more economic development across the state.”

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