After more than 50 years of maybes, somedays and possibilities, the west leg of the Gilcrease Expressway took a giant step toward reality at a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning.
At the corner of 56th West Avenue and 21st Street, Gov. Kevin Stitt, Mayor G.T. Bynum and County Commissioner Karen Keith gathered with other local and state officials to commemorate the final leg of the expressway first envisioned in 1961.
Bynum thanked former Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley for his work on getting the project started. He said the new highway will open new opportunities for parts of Tulsa left out of economic growth elsewhere in the city.
“Knowing that both north Tulsa and west Tulsa for so many years took a back seat to the rest of the city when it came to economic development,” Bynum said. “There are so many people who kept pushing to continue, year by year incrementally assembling funding needed for the land to build this expressway.
“Now here we are, in position where this thing is going to be built over the next three years, and it is going to unlock the economies in north Tulsa and west Tulsa in a way they’ve never been before.”
Tim Duit, with Edmond-based Duit Construction, said construction on the $261 million project will begin in earnest in January after the holidays. With good weather, the expressway should open in March 2022.
Complete with shovels and Oklahoma Turnpike Authority hardhats, officials broke ground just south of 21st Street.
Stitt said the project stands to spur further growth in the Tulsa area and demonstrate the state’s economic strength.
“I’m just so excited to showcase our state and our city with this new expressway,” Stitt said.
“This is going to be fantastic. When you think about this route, the economic development, I’m just so excited for that. We’re going to recruit more companies here. It’s going to alleviate a lot of the traffic issues.”
The west leg will connect the leg spanning north Tulsa to 51st Street near the I-44/I-244 western split in west Tulsa. It will include multiple bridges, including over Charles Page Boulevard and the Arkansas River west of downtown.
Keith — whom Bynum called “the patron saint of long term causes in our community, and she always ends up being right” — said she’s ecstatic that the expressway is no longer a shelved plan for the future.
“We all know too well how important this new transportation link is,” Keith said. “Gilcrease is a safety valve, an additional and much-needed connection for first responders, and a less congested route for Chandler Park, west Tulsa and Sand Springs.”
The University of Tulsa said Tuesday it has entered into an agreement with international cybersecurity venture capital firm Team8 and the George Kaiser Family Foundation to create a “first-of-its kind” Ph.D. fellowship program in cybersecurity in research and development.
It was not immediately clear how the program will be funded, but the university said in a news release that GKFF is “sponsoring” the fellowships, which will include tuition for four years of graduate study, a living stipend, benefits and a $20,000 bonus for graduates who remain in Tulsa for at least two years. The university said other sponsors may be added.
GKFF said its commitment will be about $5 million spread over several years.
Team8, an Israeli firm with offices in the U.S., will place a “full-time research director” on campus.
“There is a critical need to expand cyber research, innovation and entrepreneurship to thwart such attacks and to ensure the quality of cyber services, vendors and products in supply chains, manufactured products and insurance ratings,” TU President Gerard Clancy said in announcing the agreement. “TU and Team8 are helping to fill the void.”
According to the university, “Team8 will serve in an advisory capacity, providing real-world expertise and guidance specifically regarding (but not limited to) entrepreneurship and commercialization opportunities.”
Team8 was created in 2014 by four former Israeli military intelligence operatives and both creates cybersecurity measures and raises venture capital to spin off new companies. Its business associates include Walmart, Cisco, Airbus, Moody’s and Nokia.
In 2018, Team8 announced it had raised $85 million to finance eight security startups over five years. It was not immediately clear whether the TU agreement is connected.
“We’re really excited to broaden our academic program and partner with TU to foster groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs,” Team8 co-founder and CEO Nadav Zafrir said in a news release. “This fellowship creates a unique opportunity to help students develop advanced transformative technologies and solutions that hold the potential to significantly impact the most pressing challenges of our digital world.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and several Tulsa business leaders issued statements in support of the program.
“This program makes it clear that Tulsa is at the forefront of this promising industry,” Bynum said.
While Tuesday’s announcement would be good news under most circumstances, in this case it could further divide a campus in turmoil over last spring’s decision to reorganize the university in a way that is perceived to benefit engineering and particularly the cybersecurity program at the expense of the liberal arts.
In addition, for about a year TU has been involved in promoting a “cyber district” along the Sixth Street corridor stretching west from the campus, and some faculty have floated the theory that GKFF is behind the reorganization.
GKFF insiders and the university administration have strenuously denied a connection.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Supporters of an effort to let voters decide to expand Medicaid will turn in their signatures to the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office on Thursday.
Amber England, a spokeswoman for the Yes on 802 campaign, said supporters obtained more than the 177,958 signatures needed to ask voters to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to expand Medicaid.
“We are confident a number we turn in sends a message loud and clear that Oklahomans want to decide this issue,” England said.
The issue will be on a ballot in 2020, she predicted.
Gov. Kevin Stitt can put it on the general election ballot or a special election ballot, she said.
“If Medicaid expansion passes in the state of Oklahoma, it will deliver health care to 200,000 Oklahomans that go without coverage now and bring back over $1 billion a year of taxpayers’ dollars from (Washington) D.C. to invest back into communities,” she said. “It can help save our rural hospitals, and Oklahomans will be able to decide their own health care.”
She said she expects a full media campaign to educate voters about the need for Medicaid expansion.
The effort already withstood one legal challenge but could draw a challenge to the signatures and to the ballot language, she said.
In June, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the gist of the petition, a description of the measure that appears on the petition signatures sheets, is not misleading and was sufficient.
The challenge was brought by Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and two medical professionals.
England said the OCPA has shown that it is willing to do anything to prevent Oklahomans from voting on the issue.
“We fully expect a challenge from them,” she said.
Small said his organization will not know if it will file a challenge until it sees what has been filed with the secretary of state.
He said Medicaid expansion will not solve the problems supporters say it will, predicting that it won’t help rural heath care or lower prices for all Oklahomans.
He said hospitals are still increasing prices and that emergency room use is up. The vast majority of the money spent ends up in urban hospitals “that are already wealthy anyway,” Small said.
“It comes with a massive price tag,” he said.
Small was asked if the OCPA anticipated funding a campaign to oppose the measure should it make the ballot.
“I would suspect you would see a separate entity educating people specifically about State Question 802 and encouraging them to oppose it and support something else,” Small said.
Meanwhile, a legislative working group has provided some ideas for improving the state’s health outcomes to Stitt’s office, which is expected to announce something in the coming weeks.
“The governor believes State Question 802 is not in the best interest of Oklahomans, and he opposes putting Obamacare into the state’s constitution,” said Baylee Lakey, a spokeswoman. “The governor and state agencies are actively working to craft a health care plan that is right for Oklahoma, and we will share that plan when it is finalized.”
Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, is co-chairman of the legislative working group.
He said Medicaid expansion came up several times but that the group’s primary focus was on ways to improve the overall health-care landscape.
“We ran the gamut as far as trying to figure out why Oklahoma is as unhealthy as it is,” McEntire said. “It is a huge spider web of issues, concerns and problems.”
He said a lot of recommendations were sent to leadership.
“We don’t know if our recommendations are congruent with what the governor wants to do,” McEntire added.
He said he does not support the ballot measure, which he says ties the hands of the Legislature should the federal government change course in how it funds Medicaid expansion or coverage mandates.
“I like the idea of expanding Medicaid,” McEntire said. “I think it is good for people, hospitals and the overall health outcomes for the state. However, there is a concern that enrollment will be higher than what we anticipate and costs could get out of control.”
The ballot initiative came after several years of refusal by lawmakers to expand Medicaid.
Anyone with lingering concerns that the city of Tulsa might get rid of its golf courses should have been at Page Belcher or Mohawk Park golf courses on Tuesday.
They might have bumped into the five city councilors who spent several hours of the glorious fall day touring the facilities. Councilors walked through the clubhouses, drove the courses in carts, poked around in the sand traps, walked over not-so-sturdy bridges, and even took a few hacks at the little round ball.
It was not always pretty — the courses or the swings — but councilors seemed to come away with an appreciation for the golf courses and the need to keep them properly maintained.
“I am much more aware of the opportunity or service that it (public golf courses) provides our citizens,” said Councilor Cass Fahler. “I think we probably need to move it up on the radar. There are a lot more people that utilize our four golf courses than I ever expected.”
Tuesday’s outing was arranged by Councilor Jeannie Cue, whose district includes Page Belcher and who is working with city officials to come up with long-term plans to improve the city-owned courses. Councilors Phil Lakin, Crista Patrick and Vanessa Hall-Harper also made the trip.
The effort to learn more about the golf courses was a response in part to complaints from local golfers that the city has not done enough to maintain its courses. The criticism grew louder and more intense this summer after the city failed to include funding specifically for the golf courses in its proposed $639 million Improve Our Tulsa renewal package.
Cue said she arranged the tour to help councilors understand how important the golf courses are to local residents and to the city.
“People love our golf courses,” she said. “They are important to them, and they come out and play together, and that is a passion for them. It’s very important to keep them open.”
That was the message Cue shared with golfers she met Tuesday. She ended a conversation with a man at Mohawk Park Golf Course by telling him the city does not want to close its golf courses.
“I just want to verify” that, she said.
Paul Hall’s remarks to councilors were typical of what councilors heard from golfers all day — a lot of praise mixed with some minor concerns. As he prepared to tee off at Mohawk Park, Hall told councilors that the golf course sometimes floods, making it impossible to play. He would also like to see the course get modern carts with GPS systems to track balls.
But Hall, who has been playing at Mohawk for more than 40 years, made clear that he values the course and believes it’s worth keeping.
“We love the course. Keep having courses,” said Hall, 59. “It’s getting to be too few courses, it seems like. I think it’s part of what a city should provide for its residents. (It) keeps the gut down and keeps me in shape. I think it’s a good thing for everybody.”
The city’s golf courses are managed by Tulsa Golf, the local arm of Billy Casper Golf. Page Belcher and Mohawk Park each have two 18-hole courses. Since 2014, when Tulsa Golf assumed responsibility for all expenses for the courses, they have combined to average 102,145 rounds a year and been subsidized by the city an average of $102,639 annually, according to Tulsa Golf.
Parks Director Anna America toured Mohawk Park with councilors Tuesday morning. She said afterward that the city continues to look into all possible options — excluding selling the courses — to ensure their long-term viability.
She said given the city’s limited funding, the question to be answered is, “How do you find a way to invest those (dollars) in the most beneficial way that maintains what we’ve got, improves where we can but does it in a cost-effective way?”
More than one city councilor Tuesday expressed a willingness to consider a public-private partnership — a possibility of which America has spoken. Patrick and Fahler said they would be interested in exploring that option.
“It does appear to me that a public-private partnership might be effective,” Patrick said. “I mean, it’s been effective for things like the zoo.”
Patrick and other councilors who toured the courses said they need to examine the issue more before advocating for a specific funding solution.
“I don’t have a sense of how we go forward,” said Lakin, the council chairman.
But he insisted that it’s the city’s responsibility to take care of its assets, whether it’s the golf courses or the Performing Arts Center.
“We saw things of concern to any golfer” Lakin said of the Mohawk Park courses. “If you can’t use the sand traps, then that’s obviously a problem. … The maintenance workers have done as best as they can given the limited resources they have to maintain the courses, but it’s not a maintenance problem; it’s a rehabilitation problem.
“They can’t maintain the course because it’s too far in disrepair.”