Turnpike travails

OTA rep talks about road, bridge projects, completion dates

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Joe Eschelle, assistant executive director for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, speaks to a Yukon Chamber of Commerce crowd Thursday.

By Mindy Ragan Wood
Staff Writer

A room full of guests waited to hear the upcoming fate of the Kilpatrick Turnpike Extension during the Yukon Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday.

Assistant Executive Director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority Joe Eschelle doubles as the agency’s chief engineer.

Eschelle provided an update on the state’s turnpike projects including the Kilpatrick interchanges nearing completion and the extension that will stretch from Council Road to State Highway 152.

The project includes the widening at the North Canadian River bridge and O’Flow bridges from State Highway 66 to Wilshire, and the replacement of structures that will smooth out those bridges. Citizens have complained since the bridges were built that their cars bounce or float along those bridges for a rough ride across them. That project is estimated to be complete by next fall.

The southwest improvements to the Kilpatrick extension project include the SW 15th street interchange which could be complete by the end of August 2019 and the I-40 interchange between Sara Road and Mustang Road by September 2019. The entire seven-mile extension is scheduled to be complete by Feb. 2020.

Eschelle said they work with contractors to incentivize them to complete work ahead of schedule.

“The most recent time the contractor shows is February 2020,” he said. “Everything we do, the contracts, we pay an incentive for the contract to finish early. Imagine if you’re building a house or a business and you say, ‘hey I’m going to earn $5,000 a day, when it’s complete, so I’ll give you $2,500 a day for every day you finish early.’ That’s basically how we set that up.”

The Kilpatrick extension was something Eschelle said the agency knew had to be done. He compared the traffic along the turnpike through Edmond to the growth that has been tracked locally in Canadian and western Oklahoma counties.

“We carry somewhere 70,000 cars a day in that area,” he said of Edmond. “Some people drive a mile and get right back off because it’s faster than waiting through the stop lights. Over here on the west side around Lake Overholser in the last six years the traffic has gone up 50 percent. In normal civil engineering, a normal increase is somewhere around two or three percent.”

Eschelle said he believes the extension will sustain at least several thousand more cars a day. The agency sold an additional $55 million in bonds to widen river bridges to adjust for the projected increase in traffic.

The Kilpatrick extension will cost more than $200 million. Eschelle said part of the reason a turnpike project takes time is the careful negotiations with landowners and the bodies of water that must be navigated.

“We needed to avoid houses,” he said. “Could we have gone straight through houses, I suppose we could have. But if we did, we would probably never build another turnpike again. Probably legislators and governors, nobody would ever get reelected.”

Eschelle said the most important part of the process is the purchase of property.

“It is the most difficult thing to go to someone who didn’t ask for me to come there and say, ‘hey uh, I’m trying to miss your neighbor’s house and there’s two houses over there and I don’t want to hit yours and by the way you have to sell it to me.’ That’s tough. The most difficult thing we try to do is purchase right-of-way.”

The presentation put into perspective how a turnpike can change the lives of Oklahomans for jobs just by decreasing the commute from work to home.

“Who here wants to drive more than 30 minutes to work?” he asked the crowd. No one raised their hands.

“When this is done,” he said of the turnpike that will go through Choctaw, “Wellston will be within a 30-minute drive of Tinker Air Force Base, the largest employer in Oklahoma. All of sudden Wellston becomes a place you live and drive to Tinker.”

Oklahomans will see more changes to toll roads statewide. The agency plans to eliminate coin or cash toll booths.

Pike passes will be accepted and those who do not have a pike pass will be sent an invoice to pay. A payment system called PlatePay Oklahoma has been installed in Tulsa where a non-pike pass user’s car tag is photographed and the owner is sent an invoice.

Pike passes will also be accepted in Kansas and Texas on all toll roads but Eschelle did not have an effective date.