By Ryan Horton
When Tim Hight was brought on as executive director of the Eastern Oklahoma County Partnership five years ago, his number one mission became bringing a high-speed transportation corridor through the area to benefit the future growth of local communities.
His dedication paid off last week when the “Driving Forward: Investing in Oklahoma’s Future” plan was announced.
The plan calls for six large-scale projects that will modernize, enhance and improve safety, reduce congestion and support population growth on the turnpike system at an estimated cost of $892 million issued via bonds.
One of those six projects is a “Northeast Oklahoma County loop” that has been the wishful thinking of many area leaders for nearly 25 years.
“This turnpike project was the key part to our long-term strategy for eastern Oklahoma County. Today is a historic day, not just for this area, but for Oklahoma. I can’t say enough about the commitment of our board of directors of the EOC Partnership, the communities and the businesses involved. This was truly a team effort, and I’m honored that I’ve been a small part of that,” Hight said shortly after the Oct. 29 announcement by Governor Mary Fallin and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
“This project will catalyze this region for investment and economic growth.”
With over a third of the entire plan budget being dedicated to eastern Oklahoma County and the east Oklahoma City metro area, community leaders feel the region will now have a plethora of development and growth opportunities.
“This is the largest infrastructure project ever out here. We’re getting the lion’s share for this project, but we are the ones that are in need the most. If you look at a map of the OKC metro there are several north and south highways west of I-35 and none to the east. As a region, we’ve been neglected for 50 years,” said Choctaw mayor Randy Ross. “The project has been tossed around for about 25 years, but it was basically dead 10 years ago. I’ve been showing people this map since I became mayor, 10 years ago, showing leaders the need for the infrastructure out here. Then five years ago we formed the EOC Partnership with all the cities on board with infrastructure as our top goal. This has been a lot of hard work, and it’s paying off, this is going to be great for our community and all the surrounding communities.”
With an estimated time frame of less than four years, local community leaders expect to soon see benefits similar to those experienced by cities in the northwest Oklahoma City metro area.
“This is a great day for the Choctaw area. This is something we’ve been discussing for the last 10 or 15 years, and now we can look forward to it happening over the next several years,” said incoming chairman of the Choctaw Chamber of Commerce, Todd Isaac. “My dad was on the committee about 15 years ago when they were talking about some kind of ‘eastern loop’ and a lot of people thought it would never happen. So it’s exciting that now it’s actually happening. In 15 years we’ll be able to look back and really be proud of what has happened to this area as a result of this.”
The “Northeast Oklahoma County loop” project will allow for a connection from eastern Oklahoma County to vital intersections for travel. Construction will link I-40 and I-44 (Turner Turnpike) with a 21-mile highway through eastern Oklahoma County.
Officials say, this will produce a drive-time reduction to access Tulsa from the OKC metro and the new loop is needed to alleviate current congested traffic in the Oklahoma City area.
The project is expected to cost around $300 million.
“The timing of this is crucial because of the additional 3,000 jobs coming to Tinker Air Force Base with Boeing,” said State Senator Ron Sharp. “But this isn’t something that’s just going to benefit the Oklahoma City metro. This will have a major impact on surrounding towns like Jones, Luther, Choctaw and Harrah. Our rural communities in eastern Oklahoma County have long needed this kind of infrastructure development to attract jobs and expand their local economies.”
Another $300 million will be spent farther east on Turner Turnpike reconstruction and safety improvements between Bristow and the Creek Turnpike West (State Highway 364) section. This project will create an “urban turnpike corridor” with lighting, wider lanes and the addition of lanes. It will allow for the future creation of truck-specific lanes for quick and safe access.
The plan also called for a 2.5 mile project on the Gilcrease Expressway at a cost of $28 million from OTA and partnership with City of Tulsa, a 9.5 mile project on the Muskogee Turnpike at $42 million, a 7.5 mile, $32 million project on the HE Bailey Turnpike and a seven mile expansion of the Kilpatrick between I-40 and State Highway 152/Airport Road at a cost of $190 million.
Officials say there are four major benefits to these projects that fall under safety, economic development, vision and workforce.
These projects are meant to create a safer Oklahoma by addressing current impediments and allowing for less congestion due to new routes and expansion.
These projects will create thousands of construction jobs and feed into many other industries during the building phase. However, the real economic boom is the added miles of roads that will allow for easier and quicker access for consumers and give commerce in many areas a needed boost and new opportunities.
Officials say Oklahoma can’t be crisis managers for our transportation system; there is a need to proactively address this issue now for safety, growth and commerce in the state. Investing in roads and bridges today allows future generations more opportunities.
The addition of routes in Tulsa and around the Oklahoma City Metro area will provide motorists alternative routes to and from work, decreasing travel time, improving safety and saving time and money. For instance, with the addition of the Eastern Oklahoma County loop, commuters could live in Bristow/Kellyville area and commute to Tinker Air Force base in similar time as those in El Reno and Purcell.
“The ‘Driving Forward’ plan is about ensuring safe travel, relieving congestion to shorten commutes and sustaining economic development for years to come,” 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.”
OTA Executive Director Tim Stewart said the projects outlined in the ‘Driving Forward’ address issues that need immediate attention.
“We must make plans now for population and economic growth so we can be in a good position for increased traffic that is going to happen in Oklahoma,” said Stewart. “I know there might be some who would like for us to wait, or just do a little at a time, but the need is now and will become stronger in the future to make our system safer and easier for our customers.”
For more information about this initiative and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, please visit the project specific website www.DriveForwardOK.com