Are Oklahoma turnpikes here to stay?

BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD zcampfield@opubco.com Modified: September 22, 2012 at 10:28 pm •  Published: September 24, 2012
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With two major turnpike expansion projects in progress and a corridor study under way on a proposed new one in Tulsa, many Oklahoma drivers are asking — will tolling on state highways ever come to an end?

The answer to that, at least right now, is yes: The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's $1.1 billion in bonding debt is currently scheduled to be retired in full by 2031.

But there's plenty of time between now and then to adopt new projects, accumulate more debt and push back — again — the day drivers can finally stop digging into their pockets on the highways.

Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, who chairs the Senate's transportation committee, opposes the accumulation of any more debt for the turnpike system.

The system initially included a sunset clause that called for tolling on a particular turnpike to cease once its construction debt was retired. Voters in 1954, however, approved a referendum that pools toll revenue to support systemwide improvements, including the construction of new turnpikes.

Stanislawski and other critics say that the cross pledging system promotes continued growth of the turnpike bureaucracy and makes it too easy to continue adding to and extending the authority's debt obligation.

The lawmaker, who is also critical of the proposed conversion of the Gilcrease Expressway in Tulsa to the state's 11th turnpike, said he's not against new highway construction.

“I just think there's a way to do it without having to go issue new long-term debt,” he said. “Because of current revenue streams from our current bond package there may be enough revenues in there to build without going out for a brand new bond.”

Stanislawski said he supports a user-based fee system for highway construction, but he would prefer new projects be self-contained instead of cross pledged.

Other critics have called for disbanding the toll system altogether.

Most prominent among these critics have been Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson, who ran for governor in 2002 on a platform that included converting the turnpikes to state highways, and former Sen. Randy Brogdon, who once chaired the Senate's transportation appropriation committee and now works for the state insurance commission.

Brogdon once called the authority's relationship with its bondholders “dangerous” for the state, and Richardson says the program reeks of cronyism.

“It kills property prices, it kills the economy for small towns — the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is a killer,” Richardson said. “They (the bondholders) are making money off the backs of the people of Oklahoma and the people of Oklahoma don't even know it.”

Toll revenue

Toll revenue generated by the Turner Turnpike, between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, represented about 24 percent of total tolls collected by the authority in 2011. But that turnpike is independently allotted only about 5 percent of the authority's maintenance expenditures over the course of the next five years.

The cross pledging of turnpike revenue was instrumental in developing the state's turnpike system and continues to make it feasible to support ongoing maintenance and expansion projects, said state transportation directors.

Pooling toll revenue has made it possible for Oklahoma to develop a convenient and safe highway system that might have otherwise been impossible relying strictly on motor fuel taxes and federal and state appropriations, said Tim Stewart, deputy director of the turnpike authority.

The tolls fill a widening funding gap at Oklahoma Department of Transportation, which oversees the state highway system, he said.

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