Oklahoma Department of Transportation commissioners expressed concern in Monday’s commission meeting after confusion over the reasoning behind Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz's decision to pump the brakes on a long-anticipated project last month.
Their concern stems from comments in the commission meeting where Gatz said he would be consulting with the governor’s office on transportation projects where the governor has no statutory authority or oversight.
The State Highway 9 and 1-35 interchange project is an anticipated piece of ODOT’s 8-year-construction plan to improve road and bridge safety. Engineering design efforts for the project are 60% complete. The project has been approved by local, county, ODOT and tribal stakeholders who planned to advance development initiatives at a kickoff meeting in late March.
But, one month ago, Gatz cancelled the kickoff meeting three days before it was planned to take place. He told commissioners at the following regularly scheduled meeting that he wanted to consider any possible impacts of the McGirt v. Oklahoma Supreme Court decision.
The McGirt decision enhanced some tribal jurisdictions of criminal cases. It is unknown at this point how the McGirt decision will influence civil issues in the state.
Gatz now says the current plan for the interchange is insufficient.
“This is simply a matter of an understanding that we have yet to pick the improvement that was going to fix the entire interchange. We were proceeding with an additional operational improvement that from an engineering standpoint just didn’t seem prudent,” he said.
But, commissioner’s pushed back Monday, saying the current plan is sufficient and citing concerns about Gatz’s change of heart after consulting with the governor, who has no authority over ODOT and tribal partnership projects.
“The problem is you have stationary traffic on I-35 from people who are exiting, trying to get on Highway 9. This absolutely fixes that, and you know it. That is the reason it was signed off on. That is the reason there was a handshake agreement. That’s the reason there was a kick off meeting scheduled and not canceled until three days before,” said Commissioner T.W. Shannon.
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office released a statement calling the project a pet project for special interests. But, commissioners disagree.
“I think it is irresponsible for any state official to call where there are legitimate, determined safety issues a pet project,” said Commissioner James Grimsley.
Commissioner Shannon proposed a resolution to support the 8-year-plan as-is, but the resolution failed.
Shannon also proposed a resolution to request the state attorney general to advise the commission on any potential issues stemming from the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision.
This resolution also failed.
Gatz said he is now working to find other alternatives for the interchange.
Gatz said in the commission meeting that “many successful road and bridge projects have been completed in close coordination with our tribal partners in almost all areas of the state.”
The State Department of Transportation and Turnpike Authority do not require approval from the governor for projects done in partnership with the tribes.
ODOT released a statement Tuesday saying “the department is committed to move forward in an accelerated manner to produce a set of design alternatives for the full I-35 and SH-9 West interchange that takes into consideration the needs of all stakeholders.”
The statement said that once a new alternative is developed for the full interchange, ODOT will consider how the Chickasaw Nation’s proposed operation improvements might fit into the plan.
The ODOT executive director can enter into an agreement with a sovereign tribal nation unilaterally. This ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ secured $10 million in support for the project from the Chickasaw Nation in 2019. The project is estimated to cost $17 million total.
The department is drafting a new and more formal protocol to advance some types of tribal agreements to facilitate better communication with tribes and ODOT staff. Gatz said the new protocols will be put in place to manage expectations.
The ODOT statement said the department is preparing a new agreement with the tribe that will address issues related to the McGirt ruling on “all aspects of state government.”
Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, Bill Anoatubby, said in a statement Tuesday that the nation has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with ODOT.
"This positive relationship has benefitted all Oklahomans resulting in many roads and bridge projects. Moving forward, it is important to remain focused and committed to working together as neighbors, friends, and partners to make the much-needed infrastructure improvements necessary for continued economic development and greater public safety. We will stay true to achieving the common goal to create a safer road system for all Oklahomans,” he said.
This story is a part of the Oklahoma Media Center’s Promised Land collaborative effort, which shows how the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma decision will affect both tribal and non-Indigenous residents in the state.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Inasmuch Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Democracy Fund. The print, digital and broadcast media partners include: Big If True, CNHI Oklahoma, Cherokee Phoenix, Curbside Chronicle, The Frontier, Gaylord News, Griffin Communications, KFOR, KGOU, KOSU, The Lawton Constitution, Moore Monthly, Mvskoke Media, NonDoc, The O’Colly, Oklahoma City Free Press, The Oklahoma Eagle, The Oklahoman, Oklahoma Watch, Osage News, StateImpact Oklahoma, Tulsa World, Telemundo Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Student Media and Verified News Network.