A bill to provide economic protection to small communities by requiring economic impact studies of transportation bypass projects was vetoed Wednesday. Legislators and thousands of citizens, business and community leaders in Muskogee are outraged by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) decision to construct a bypass along US Highway 69, which could cost the community millions in lost business, tourism and tax revenue in the future.
Sen. Kim David and Rep. George Faught authored Senate Bill 86 to require ODOT to conduct economic impact studies of local communities before proceeding with any bypass projects in the state to ensure that the projects did not negatively impact those communities financially.
“I’m extremely disappointed by Gov. Fallin’s veto of this important bill. Her reasoning for vetoing the bill is because it transfers transportation project decision making from ODOT to local municipalities. I respectfully would like to remind the Governor that those municipalities are made up of the very taxpayers who pay for these road projects so they should absolutely have a say and especially when a project could cost their community millions of dollars in business, tourism and tax revenue,” said David, R-Porter. “We might as well put a sign up saying that Eastern Oklahoma is closed for business; however, Texas and Kansas are still open and ODOT will make sure to expedite the traffic to help them out. As the government, it is our job to do what’s in the best economic interest of our communities and citizens.”
Under SB 86, the economic impact study results were to be delivered to the municipal governing bodies and projects could only proceed with approval from the city or town.
Muskogee residents and business leaders are upset because ODOT changed their eight-year plan for US69 to receive a federal INFRA grant for $80-$100 million to realign US69 and build a bypass around Muskogee. The issue was brought to the authors’ attention by StopODot, a coalition consisting of the Mayor of Muskogee and governing body, business groups including the Chamber of Commerce, the local Hotel and Lodge Association, and nearly 3,600 citizens who signed a petition opposing the Muskogee US69 bypass.
“I’m very disappointed at Governor Fallin’s choice to veto SB 86. ODOT needs to have more oversight and give local communities more influence when a bypass is considered,” said Faught, R-Muskogee. “It should not be based on faulty data or the promise of federal money. If the proposed bypass is constructed then the economic impact will stall any new development in Muskogee for the next 15 years. Every community on the Highway 69 corridor is in jeopardy of being harmed.”
Opponents to the bypass stress that the “Texas Road” is vital to the community of Muskogee. ODOT has spent millions in the last 20 years widening northbound US69 going through the community. The widening project was a boon for economic development as motels, restaurants and other businesses were constructed along the highway and nearby. A similar project was proposed for the southbound lanes. ODOT conducted a study in 2016 that found the proposed widening project would be sufficient in resolving any traffic flow issues until 2040.
However, after the INFRA program was announced, ODOT had another study conducted by an out-of-state firm, which conflicted with the original one. ODOT prepared a new Freight Transportation Plan designating US69 as a Critical Rural Freight Corridor (CRFC) in order to make it eligible for an INFRA grant and proposed a nearly ten mile bypass with limited access to Muskogee at a cost of roughly $100 million, up to four times the cost of the originally planned widening project. ODOT conducted an internal accident traffic study as additional justification for the grant stating that the road had a high percentage of accidents but the City of Muskogee conducted its own study using the same database and found that the current US69 highway was actually safer and had less accidents and injuries than the average Oklahoma highway.
Sen Dewayne Pemberton, who coauthored the bill, pointed out that the Governor’s veto message contradicts what has occurred to date with the US69 project.
“Gov. Fallin serves the people of Oklahoma not the will of ODOT. In her veto message, she says ‘it has been the practice of state leaders to allow the engineers and professionals at ODOT to make transportation project decisions based on sound data and not by political interference’ but the community of Muskogee has already shown that ODOT said their previous eight-year plan was sufficient but then started manipulating data in order to qualify for a federal grant to do a much more expensive project,” said Pemberton, R-Muskogee. “Instead of vetoing this important bill, she should be questioning ODOT as to why they’re willing to spend tens of millions of dollars more of taxpayer money on a project that could financially devastate Muskogee and other communities along the US69 corridor.”