OKLAHOMA CITY — Under pressure from local and tribal leaders to modernize Oklahoma’s rural turnpikes, transportation officials said they’re examining the entire turnpike network to consider where to add interchanges so motorists can better access underserved locations and increase use of toll roads.

Joe Echelle, deputy director at the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, acknowledged that the lack of exits and on-ramps is acute along the Indian Nation Turnpike, a nearly 50-year-old toll road that runs from Henryetta to Hugo, cutting across a 105-mile swath of eastern Oklahoma.

Echelle, who is originally from McAlester, said he continues to drive that turnpike — also known as State Highway 375 — to visit family.

He said he doesn’t know how many times he has seen people enter the highway and then turn around at one of the cut-throughs to head in the opposite direction. Other people realize they’ve gotten off at the wrong exit and then back up the exit ramps into oncoming traffic, causing accidents.

Echelle, who made his remarks during a legislative hearing exploring the lack of ramp access along the turnpike, said Indian Nation Turnpike exits are spaced nearly 20 miles apart. Having entrances and exits every eight or 10 miles would be perfect.

“We would have never built the Indian Nation today like we built it 50 years ago, and that’s because we had to have a toll collector and a booth,” he said. “We had to be able to capture that toll.”

But there are bigger priorities right now than adding new, costly ramp access, he said. The entire turnpike infrastructure is aging, he said. Nearly 200 bridges need to be rehabilitated within the next two decades. Guardrails, shoulders and signage need to be replaced, and 300 miles of four-lane highway will need pavement work.

“I say that because it’s almost impossible to get an interchange project,” Echelle said.

He noted that officials have already priced three possible access ramps along the Indian Nation Turnpike.

Adding a new access ramp at Indianola, which currently only has half an interchange, would cost at least $1.2 million. Adding an interchange at Blanco’s State Highway 63, which is located south of McAlester, would cost just under $8 million and require the installation of fiber optic cable. He said transportation officials are also looking at adding a new cloverleaf interchange at U.S. Highway 69 in McAlester because the turnpike’s existing design requires motorists to make left turns through interstate-type traffic. There have been multiple accidents at that intersection. That project will likely cost closer to $13 million.

But Echelle said even though there is never enough money and a long list of projects that need to be completed, next time there is a bond program, turnpike officials will take a look at which new interchanges are needed statewide, when they can be completed and how they can be phased in.

He said places that have received new interchanges have typically had some form of local participation in the project, either in the way of cash funding, purchasing right-of-ways, moving utilities, and, perhaps, paying for the design.

“If somebody shows up with some money, they can buy their way onto the priority list,” Echelle said.

Tribal and local officials, meanwhile, pressed the state’s Turnpike Authority, which receives no state-appropriated funding, to quickly add several new interchanges across southeastern Oklahoma. They said the lack of access is hindering economic development across the region because the turnpike is the area’s equivalent of an interstate system. It is also making it difficult for emergency crews to respond to accidents, grassfires and medical emergencies.

John Redman, who represents the Choctaw Nation, said the tribe has some important economic activities that are occurring up and down the turnpike corridor, including Daisy Ranch, which is a federally-designated unmanned aircraft systems test site, and Choctaw Defense, which does defense contracting work.

“If you want to maximize your opportunity to create jobs, commerce, prosperity, address tourism, you need every access point available to your local communities,” Redman said. “You can’t just pipe people through your territory. You want them to stop, get off, hopefully stay and then ultimately come back. We are not maximizing that potential with Indian Nation Turnpike.

Mike Brittingham, a Pushmataha County commissioner, said the region’s county roads are not capable of handling increases in traffic, particularly from the region’s timber economy.

Improving turnpike access is critical for McAlester’s economic future, said Kirk Ridenour, McAlester’s economic development director.

“We’re talking about increasing access for residents, for businesses, for future opportunities,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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