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Transportation Secretary Says Deficiencies, Not Governor's Office, Led To I-35 Project Delay

Oklahoma’s top transportation official said improvements in partnership with the Chickasaw Nation to relieve traffic backups on I-35 at Highway 9 are on hold because they’re not the right solution, not because he consulted with the governor’s office, which has come out against the project.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation Executive Director Tim Gatz, who is also Gov. Kevin Stitt's secretary of transportation, told state transportation commissioners on Monday the consultation stemmed from concerns about potential implications of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, but that’s not why the project was suddenly put on the back burner with a public meeting canceled.

"The engagement of the governor’s office did not cause the stakeholder meeting to be postponed, I did, once I discovered the interchange project didn’t have a preferred alternative selected and that the process to determine a preferred alternative was incomplete," Gatz said.

The Supreme Court ruled in McGirt that for more than 100 years, Oklahoma wrongly asserted criminal jurisdiction over tribal citizens within the boundaries of the Muscogee Nation reservation, which Congress never disestablished. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has applied that decision to cases involving other tribes in the months since. The ruling's impact on civil matters has not been determined.

Gatz said ODOT is now rewriting its policies for some agreements with tribes. Commissioner T.W. Shannon, who is a Chickasaw citizen, told Gatz he’d seen an agency brief that said the McGirt ruling wouldn’t change any of their legal procedures.

"With all due respect, Mr. Secretary, when I consider this governor’s history on assessing and deciding what’s best in the interest of Oklahoma as it relates to tribes, that office might actually be the last place I would go seek advice," Shannon said.

Stitt failed in a bid to increase gaming fees tribes pay to the state. Courts have ruled he does not have authority to forge new gaming compacts and that tribes’ existing compacts automatically renewed Jan. 1, 2020.

Stitt has called the latest $18 million proposal to build a flyover ramp from the interchange at I-35 and Highway 9 to the Chickasaws’ Riverwind Casino a "pet project." Transportation Commissioner James Grimsley takes umbrage with that description.

"And I think it’s irresponsible for any state official to call something like this where there’s legitimate, determined, demonstrated safety issues a ‘pet project.’ This is a real project, and this is — people’s lives are depending on this," Grimsley said.

There have been dozens of crashes a year at the interchange in the past decade, with more than 30% resulting in injuries or deaths. Shannon said the McClain County project has been in ODOT’s eight-year construction plan for years.

"We have an $18 million project and somebody willing to pay $10 million. We have an agreement with ODOT and the tribe. We have a fix to this solution. This idea that we need to come up with a new one — you know," Shannon said.

The commission encouraged Gatz to keep the project on schedule. The bulk of the work is supposed to be done in 2023. But the commission also voted against two proposals by Shannon: a request for an attorney general’s opinion on Stitt’s legal authority to deviate from the eight-year construction plan and a resolution saying political influence should not be a factor in the work plan.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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