OTA asks for $500 million: Council of Bond to hear OTA's request for revenue bond expenditure

·4 min read

Aug. 8—The turnpike opposition group Pike Off OTA plans to ask the Council of Bond Oversight to disapprove the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's application to use funds in a $500 million bond issuance for new toll roads in the Norman area until two lawsuits are resolved in district court.

The meeting to vote on the allocation will be hosted at 11 a.m. Tuesday at 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. in 1st Floor Multi-Purpose Room 100, the agenda reads.

OTA unveiled its 15-year, $5 billion ACCESS plan to improve and expand the state's turnpike system Feb. 22.

Those plans include two new toll roads in Norman — one in east Norman south from Interstate 40 to Purcell through the Lake Thunderbird Watershed, and another along Indian Hills Road.

The council is responsible to review and approve all "financing requests by state agencies, authorities, departments and trusts," its website reads.

Spokesman for Pike Off OTA Randy Carter noted in an email that the council gave conditional approval in May when the agency requested a $200 million. The council forbade OTA from using any of the bond revenue on turnpikes involved in litigation.

"Ignoring the spirit of this requirement, the following day the OTA announced it would continue using general fund dollars to design the toll roads," Carter said in a prepared statement.

Spokeswoman for OTA Jessica Brown said Monday that Tuesday's request is conditional ahead of the Oklahoma Supreme Court which will decide if it will validate the issuance of those bonds.

"OTA's request is for COBO (Council of Bond Oversight) to approve OTA's application conditioned on validation of the bonds by the Oklahoma Supreme Court," she said.

In May, two opposition groups each filed a lawsuit. Pike Off OTA is contesting the agency's legal authorization to build the east Norman toll road and claimed it has not followed proper bond procedure.

The second, filed by more than 150 residents, accused the agency of violating the state's Open Meeting Act due to insufficient wording to inform the public about the project during two meetings earlier this year.

While the council gave approval for the $200 million for other projects, the OTA board later rescinded its application in June to the council, and in the same meeting authorized an application for up to $1 billion to be used for ACCESS projects.

The application for Tuesday's meeting is for $500 million.

Council spokesman Tim Allen said among several options, staff will recommend members approve it with the same condition it did in April: No money will be used on projects listed in the lawsuit.

"Among the options that will be considered tomorrow would be for the council to give approval on the condition that litigation relating to the bond issue should be settled before moving forward," Allen said.

OTA officials will ask for the approval of that money before the agency can ask the high court to validate the issuance of those bonds.

"If the Council approves, OTA will petition the Oklahoma Supreme Court to validate OTA's use of bonds to finance the construction of the proposed routes in the ACCESS Oklahoma program at issue in pending litigation," OTA spokeswoman Brenda Perry said in an email to The Transcript last month.

The application for $500 million was to appear before the council on July 28, but the council canceled the meeting.

OTA officials said last month that the state supreme court procedure was a routine requirement before bonds could be issued.

The first bond issuance could be performed later this year, said spokeswoman for OTA Brenda Perry.

"Validation allows OTA to proceed with the process of issuing bonds, the first of several during the 15-year, long range plan," she wrote in an email to The Transcript. "The OTA is targeting its first bond issue sometime in late 2022 to early 2023."

OTA officials have consistently said the Southern Extension in east Norman is at the end of a long, 15-year list of projects.

The agency's proposed routes have still not been finalized, but obtained approval last month from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation Commission.

Council meetings are open to the public but are not open for public comment.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.