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Political influence in transportation projects to be discussed
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Political influence in transportation projects to be discussed

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A snag in an Interstate 35 interchange project near the Chickasaw Nation’s RiverWind Casino south of Norman has become a flashpoint between the Governor’s Office and tribal officials who are seeking final approval for the project.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Transportation Commissioner T.W. Shannon wants Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter to determine what role Gov. Kevin Stitt has in determining which highway projects will proceed.

A request for an opinion and a resolution saying the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s 8-year plan should be free from political influence are agenda items on the Oklahoma Transportation Commission’s Monday meeting agenda.

The resolution also says ODOT supports cooperation with local partners, including tribes, to build and repair roads and bridges.

The action came after the details of a project between the ODOT and the Chickasaw Nation came into question. The tribe is putting $10 million into a $17 million project for a new interchange at Interstate 35 and Oklahoma 9 to alleviate congestion near its Riverwind Casino.

The project is in the 8-year plan.

But a meeting to move forward on it was canceled after a July U.S. Supreme Court Decision, dubbed McGirt, which said the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had never been disestablished by Congress for purposes of federal criminal law.

Last month, Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz, under questioning by Shannon, indicated his office, in light of the decision, will work with Stitt’s office on roadway agreements with the tribes.

Gatz, who also serves as ODOT and Oklahoma Turnpike Authority director, serves at the pleasure of Stitt, who has five appointees to the nine-member commission.

Gatz was not available for comment.

Shannon, who was appointed to the Transportation Commission by House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said the commission is charged with setting priorities for highway projects, not the Governor’s Office.

Shannon is a former Oklahoma House speaker and current CEO of the Chickasaw Community Bank. It is owned by the Chickasaw Nation, of which he is a member.

Shannon said the latest uncertainty is creating problems with how the state partners with local governments, not just tribes.

Neal McCaleb is a former Transportation Secretary and former head of OTA and ODOT. He now serves as ambassador at large for the Chickasaw Nation, of which he is a member.

Tribes have put tens of millions of dollars into partnerships with the state for road projects, McCaleb said.

McCaleb said he was “stunned” to learn the Interstate 35 project was put on hold, adding millions have already been spent on it.

Gatz said last month the project, in some form, will be completed.

Shannon said state law is clear that the governor has no role in determining transportation projects. He said the fact that Stitt has inserted himself is an indication that he is getting poor legal counsel.

“The law is clear,” Shannon said. “It is the commission’s job to set priorities about projects.”

In a March 11 email to Stitt’s chief of staff, Bond Payne, Gatz requested a meeting to discuss several project locations and tribal requests. The memo was provided under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

It included the Interstate 35 project.

It also included a project on the Turner Turnpike between Wellston and Chandler involving a request from the Iowa Tribe for a new access interchange location.

The memo also mentioned a project on the Will Rogers Turnpike north of Miami involving a request from the Peoria Tribe for a new access interchange location.

Brenda Perry, an ODOT spokeswoman, said she had no additional information about the Will Rogers and Turner Turnpike projects.

A Stitt spokeswoman said it is no longer business as usual, adding that tax protests and applications by Native Americans seeking a tribal exemptions from income taxes have been filed following the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling.

Stitt believes it is prudent to carefully scrutinize agreements with tribal governments to ensure they are in the best interest for all residents, she said.

Stitt’s office agrees politics should not be involved in the 8-year plan, but the issue is not about politics, but about fairness, she said.

The projects are still going to happen, but it might not be the tribes’ project design, she said.

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