Bonds

Judge keeps lawsuit against Oklahoma Turnpike Authority in county court for now

A county judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s extension plan at the same time the OTA asked the state supreme court to validate bonds for the project.

The ruling was the first in either of two lawsuits seeking to block OTA from building certain extensions as part of its bond-financed $5 billion, 15-year ACCESS (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) plan.

Cleveland County District Court Judge Timothy Olsen ruled the lawsuit, which alleges Open Meeting Act violations, will proceed in his court unless the supreme court chooses to exercise original jurisdiction. 

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s plan to extend its routes continues to be challenged in county court while it seeks validation for bonds to finance the project from the state supreme court.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation

Stan Ward, an attorney for the property owner plaintiffs, said Wednesday that might not happen.

“The supreme court normally doesn’t like to get involved until lower courts have the opportunity to adjudicate the case,” he said.

In its Aug. 10 petition to validate $500 million of second senior lien revenue bonds, the OTA asked the supreme court to accept original jurisdiction and deny any challenges to the debt issuance. 

There has been no ruling on its motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed in Cleveland County Court by Pike Off OTA and others, which claims OTA lacks legal authority to bond, fund, and build three ACCESS turnpikes that would likely harm or destroy property in their paths.

Jessica Brown, a turnpike spokeswoman, said Oklahoma law makes it clear that the state supreme court has exclusive original jurisdiction. 

“If the bonds are validated, Oklahoma law also makes clear that the supreme court’s decision shall be conclusive and the bonds and revenues pledged to their repayment shall be incontestable in any court in the state,” she said in an email.

OTA’s petition states that the Oklahoma Supreme Court has “repeatedly found” in prior validation proceedings that OTA can determine routes.

“Each of the ACCESS projects has been previously authorized, partially constructed, and operated by the authority through the issuance of turnpike revenue bonds, and in most cases the subject of prior validation proceedings,” it added.

OTA would sell $450 million of the bonds to initiate funding for the ACCESS plan, along with $50 million of refunding bonds as soon as December. 

However, approval of the debt last week by the Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight was conditioned on the dismissal or resolution of the two lawsuits in OTA’s favor and supreme court validation of the debt.

The lawsuits had led the council to place a restriction on the OTA in May with approval of a $200 million revolving line of credit to jump start funding for the ACCESS program that prohibited its use for projects challenged by litigation.

In June, the OTA board terminated the unused credit line with Wells Fargo, authorized $950 million of bonds instead, and charted a path to get the debt approved by the oversight council and then validated by the state supreme court. 

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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