SHAWNEE — Controversy is churning in Shawnee over plans to spend $8 million to $10 million to build a new Interstate 40 interchange near where Gov. Brad Henry and state Highway Commission Chairman Dan B. Overland own property. The prospect of spending millions of dollars on an interchange some view as political at a time state programs are being slashed and employees furloughed has some residents upset. "I strongly believe that ODOT (Oklahoma Department of Transportation) should spend its limited resources on more important and needed projects, especially since bridges and roads are in such a state of disrepair in Oklahoma,” Bonnie Boone wrote in an e-mail to the Transportation Department. Boone is board president of the Grove School District, a prekindergarten through eighth-grade school district that includes the proposed Bryan Street interchange. Henry and Overland said they did not initiate the project and don’t think they would profit from it, even though they have land for sale in the area. Pushing for the Bryan Street interchange are the Shawnee Board of Commissioners and Greater Shawnee Area Chamber of Commerce. Opposed to it are the Sac and Fox Nation, the Shawnee Public Schools superintendent and Boone. The Sac and Fox opposition may kill the project, said Gary Ridley, Transportation Department director. In her e-mail to the Transportation Department, Boone openly questions whether the governor’s ownership of property in the area had something to do with selection of the proposed site. "I ... hope in my idealistic heart that this has nothing to do with it,” Boone said. "It is my fear that Shawnee political figures with school consolidation ideology are promoting and behind this plan. ODOT should not be involved in political and community economic development as a prime motivator.”
Governor’s propertyHenry and Shawnee attorney Terry West together own 40 acres of property that abuts I-40, about one-eighth mile west of the southwest corner of the proposed interchange. A Henry family trust owns a law office on Bryan Street less than a mile south of the proposed interchange. Henry said he and his siblings inherited their interest in both properties from his father. Henry said his father and his partners tried for years to sell the 40 acres but were unsuccessful because the majority of it is in a floodplain. "The addition of a highway interchange will not change that fact or improve the property’s value in any way to my knowledge,” the governor said. West agreed with Henry on the proposed interchange’s impact on their land’s value. "Apparently, it’s virtually worthless,” he said. The governor said the proposed interchange also won’t help him get more money for the old law office. "A local business is entering a lease-purchase agreement on my father’s old law office building, and the construction of a new interchange will not improve the terms of that agreement or result in any additional funds for my siblings and me,” he said.
Commissioner reactsOverland is an owner and developer of the Shawnee Country Club, located on Bryan Street about three miles south of the proposed intersection. Overland said almost all the housing lots have been sold, so he doesn’t see how he might benefit financially. "There’s no way I could benefit,” he said. "If that was the case, I never would have been involved in the decision.” The reasons organizations have given for supporting or opposing the proposed interchange are as varied as the organizations themselves. The Shawnee Board of Commissioners and Greater Shawnee Area Chamber of Commerce have passed resolutions backing the proposal as a boon to residential and commercial expansion in the area and as a way to provide traffic relief. The Sac and Fox Nation countered with a resolution stating the proposed interchange could "potentially exterminate vital traditional cultural practices such as funerals, feasts, adoptions, clan ceremonies and annual dances as actively and traditionally practiced by the tribal community of the Sac and Fox Nation.” Randle Carter, Sac and Fox treasurer, said tribal members have allotment lands in the area that for more than 100 years have been used for traditional ceremonial practices that normally aren’t talked about with the public. Marilyn Bradford, superintendent of Shawnee Public Schools, said she opposes the interchange because it and surrounding areas lie "entirely outside of the Shawnee School District’s boundary and taxing jurisdiction.” The Shawnee School District is bordered on the north, south and east by Grove and three other prekindergarten through eighth-grade schools that feed students into Shawnee High School, she said. Increased commercial and residential growth in the Grove School District likely would add students to the high school without adding revenues to fund their education, she said. Boone’s objection is over student safety and traffic. The school is about a mile south of where the proposed interchange would be built.
Project’s statusRidley said his agency began studying the project’s feasibility of the in 2007. The department has $5.9 million in mostly federal funds for the interchange, but the project won’t progress unless additional funds are provided from some other entity such as the city of Shawnee, Pottawatomie County or an Indian tribe, he said. Opposition from the Sac and Fox Nation is a double blow that could kill the project, he said. Federal officials are reviewing the environmental impact of the proposed interchange and will take tribal cultural concerns very seriously, Ridley said. In addition, transportation officials thought the Sac and Fox Nation might be a source of matching funds and that now appears unlikely, he said. "That certainly may be a game changer,” he said. If the project is approved, the earliest construction could begin is about 18 months, he said. Ridley said he knew Henry’s family had a law office in the area but was not aware he co-owned 40 acres along the interstate. The director said he also knew the commission chairman was developing the Shawnee Country Club, but didn’t know where it was located. "We build interchanges and roads close to property owned by some pretty heavy hitters all the time, and that doesn’t enter into it,” Ridley said. "I haven’t talked to the governor about it.” The governor said when he was asked about the project earlier, "my only comment was that ODOT should follow its normal procedures in determining the best site without any influence or input from me.” "Because of Shawnee’s growth and traffic count, state and federal transportation officials determined several years ago that the area desperately needed another interchange, but it doesn’t matter to me where it is located,” he said. Contributing: Staff Writer Ann Kelley