Hearing set in validation process for challenged Oklahoma Turnpike bonds

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and opponents of its plan to build bond-financed extensions will square off on Tuesday at a hearing set by the state Supreme Court.

In its Aug. 10 petition to validate $500 million of second senior lien revenue bonds, OTA asked the Supreme Court to accept original jurisdiction for two lawsuits opponents filed in district court and deny any challenges to the debt issuance. The high court appointed a so-called referee to hear oral presentations on Tuesday. 

Property owners in the path of certain extensions in the state’s $5 billion, 15-year ACCESS (Advancing and Connecting Communities and Economies Safely Statewide) plan have lawsuits pending against the Turnpike Authority in Cleveland County District Court. Judge Timothy Olsen ruled in August that one of the lawsuits, which alleges Open Meeting Act violations, will proceed in his court unless the Supreme Court chooses to exercise original jurisdiction.

In its Supreme Court brief, OTA said it has been issuing bonds for turnpike projects since 1950 and has received validation for bonds on 12 occasions to settle legal questions from the court, which never has disallowed any of its debt.

“The authority is empowered to construct, maintain, repair and operate turnpike projects throughout Oklahoma,” the brief stated. “It is authorized to do all things necessary and convenient to carry out the powers enumerated in the enabling act, including the express legislative authority to issue bonds for turnpike projects.”

It added that each ACCESS project “is essential for the future of travel in Oklahoma.”

Robert Norman, an attorney for a lawsuit brought by Pike Off OTA and individual property owners that challenges bonds for three extension projects, filed a motion on Sept. 1 asking the high court to order discovery that the district court would manage as well as litigate the case.

The city of Norman, which would have two extension projects within its boundaries, also filed a brief challenging the OTA’s authority to build the toll roads and issue bonds.

Stan Ward, an attorney representing about 245 property owners, said their lawsuit does not challenge the bonds and their allegations that OTA violated the Open Meeting Act due to “woefully deficient” meeting agendas should remain in district court.

“Simply put, it seems clear the OTA and the other defendants do not want the district court to hear the evidence of their blatant Open Meeting Act violations that render the OTA’s willful action invalid,” the brief said.

 The Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight’s Aug. 9 approval of the turnpike bonds was conditioned on the dismissal or resolution of the two lawsuits in OTA’s favor and supreme court validation of the debt.

 OTA is looking to sell $450 million of bonds to initiate funding for the ACCESS plan, along with $50 million of refunding bonds as soon as December. Its board approved up to $1 billion of debt in June. 

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.”