Oklahoma Officials Plan to Update Oklahoma Turnpike System
State turnpike officials and Gov. Mary Fallin unveiled plans for six major turnpike projects last October, and one project hopes to provide beneficial improvements for the Choctaw/Harrah area in particular.
The multi-million dollar initiative is titled Driving Forward: Investing in Oklahoma’s Future, and it involves six projects designed to modernize the turnpike system in the rapidly expanding Oklahoma City and Tulsa metros. The project is set to begin in the third quarter of 2016.
Plans include building a brand new stretch of turnpike, the Northeast Oklahoma County Loop, which will connect Interstate 40 and the Turner Turnpike (Interstate 44). The proposed loop will will move through eastern Oklahoma County with the hope of increasing efficiency and ease of movement for local communities and connecting those communities to vital intersections for travel.
The $300 million project will link with I-40 east of Tinker Air Force Base and extend north to hit the Turner Turnpike near Luther. Though initially designed as a way to improve traffic congestion and reduce travel time between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the project has the potential to improve circumstances for towns in the affected area.
The proposed route for the turnpike suggests that it will run directly between Choctaw and Harrah. Even without directly touching the communities, the project is believed to increase safety, convenience and quality of life for the citizens. Choctaw Mayor Randy Ross shared how the new loop would improve life in the east metro, especially on the front of public safety.
“The turnpike will enable sister cities and emergency services to come to our aid during times of crisis,” said Ross. “This will allow for improved public protection in the event of wildfires and other emergencies.”
The turnpike will certainly improve speed and access for emergency services in the area, while also providing easier outside access to the growing community. As Choctaw continues to grow, traffic into the city increases. Ross remarked on the increased ease of travel, especially between Choctaw and the Tulsa metro.
“The turnpike will make it much easier for visitors from Tulsa and other places to travel to events held in Choctaw, such as high school sports,” said Ross.
Growth in the community, especially within its school system (ranked 22 largest in the state according to the Choctaw Chamber of Commerce website), has definitely increased the need for improved access from outside locations. In fact, according to Ross, the city’s growth helped the school system move from a 3A district to 6A in recent years.
Besides easing increased travel into the city, the project will greatly enhance travel out of the city for businesses distributing goods and services.
“Businesses located in Choctaw are producing goods that need to move to other areas,” said Ross. “The project will allow business owners to access high speed transportation much more quickly.”
That access is going to become more and more vital as Choctaw continues to grow. Choctaw is one of the fastest growing communities in the state, a fact that reinforces the need for the turnpike project as the town’s infrastructure continues to develop.
Local communities, including Choctaw, Harrah and Oklahoma City have had a role in supporting and planning the Driving Forward initiative over the last two to five years. However, Driving Forward hasn’t been warmly received by all Oklahomans; approximately 150 people rallied around the state capitol in mid-March to protest the upcoming project. The protestors, mostly rural residents from eastern Oklahoma County, argued that the new roadway would damage wildlife and ruin rural lifestyles. While the project will address the urgent need to alleviate traffic and congestion along I-35, concerns about noise and pollution and the destruction of wildlife and vegetation are foremost in the minds of some community members.
However, state officials maintain that the project is urgent, especially in the face of continued population growth in the metro areas. In a public statement, Gov. Mary Fallin discussed the impact of the project on future Oklahoma drivers.
“The ‘Driving Forward’ plan is about ensuring safe travel and relieving congestion to shorten commutes,” said Fallin. “As Oklahoma’s population grows, it will require a greater commitment to modernizing and improving our transportation infrastructure. Making these investments today will prevent our state from having to respond to a crisis in the future.”
Oklahoma’s transportation infrastructure is in need of some major updating. Each of the six facets of the initiative address specific traffic needs across the state. The other five projects affect specific parts of Oklahoma’s two major metro areas.
The Oklahoma City Metro:
- Southwest Kilpatrick Expansion: The expansion will connect the greater part of the Oklahoma City metro with the urban core. The seven-mile, $190 million project will improve access to Will Rogers International Airport and mobility between southwest Oklahoma City and the rest of the metro.
- H.E. Bailey Turnpike Reconstruction: The project will reconstruct 7.5 miles of the H.E. Bailey Turnpike between Bridge Creek and North Meridian Avenue near Newcastle. The$32 million reconstruction will widen lanes and enhance safety features and technology for toll plaza locations.
The Tulsa Metro:
- Gilcrease Expressway project: This $28 million project will provide a new and more direct route to the Tulsa urban core and decrease traffic congestion by connecting L.L. Tisdale to I-44 and completing the Western loop around the Tulsa metro area.
- Turner Turnpike reconstruction and widening project: This reconstruction/safety project will focus on creating an “urban turnpike corridor” between Oklahoma’s two metro areas. The project will focus on a 22-mile stretch between Bristow and the Creek Turnpike West section of the existing Turner Turnpike. The $300 million project will widen the roadway to six lanes, increase lane width and improve lighting.
- Muskogee Turnpike reconstruction project: This $42 million project will focus on providing increased safety features and more drivable surface between the Creek Turnpike interchange and State Highway 51 near Coweta.
The project is entirely funded by bonds and has no role in the state budgeting process. The bonds will be paid back through tollway revenue, which will also support all operation and maintenance costs for the turnpike. The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority hopes to complete 90 percent of the project by 2019.
The initiative reflects Oklahoma’s growth as a whole and will undoubtedly make that process easier as Oklahoma looks toward the future. For the Choctaw/Harrah community, the Northeast Oklahoma County Loop reflects their part of that growth.