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 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.
“If you maintained our current level of service from a maintenance standpoint, we spend a little over $18 million a year for that,” Stewart said. “We also spend on average about $60 to $65 million a year on reinvestment in our system, and that is replacing old worn-out bridges, deteriorated roadways, adding safety devices, replacing old worn-out signage ...”
Toll revenue also supports $14 million in funding for Oklahoma Highway Patrol to provide public safety on the turnpikes, Stewart said.
Gary Ridley, the state's transportation secretary, said most Oklahomans would prefer a toll system to increased taxes. About 40 percent of toll revenue comes from out-of-state drivers, and the system has only one structurally-deficient bridge, compared to more than 600 statewide, he said.
“Somehow you have to generate enough revenue to build and maintain the system the public wants,” Ridley said.
The 1991 opening of the John Kilpatrick Turnpike, which connects areas west of Oklahoma City to the north part of the city — and ultimately to the Turner — demonstrated the benefit of the cross pledging system, he said.
That highway was constructed with $400 million in bond and toll revenues but only generates about $24 million each year.
The trade off has been significantly reduced congestion and contributed to a surge in commercial development in the northern parts of the city, said Roy Williams, president and chief executive for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
“The alternative in many cases is you don't have a road at all,” Williams said. “The Kilpatrick, I think, actually stimulated all the other shopping centers that are south of Quail Springs, and then all the other office developments, housing developments, retail developments — all the way out past Gaillardia (housing development). In fact, when the Kilpatrick was originally built you were truly driving on a turnpike and there's nothing around you.”
Last year, the authority's board approved the issuance of $150 million in bonds to finance an expansion project on about eight miles of the Kilpatrick, and its sister turnpike in Tulsa, the Creek. Construction on both projects began in May and should wrap up next spring and fall, respectively.
The authority will spend about $73 million on road and other improvements this year. Of remaining revenue, $66 million will be spent on operations and maintenance, including salaries, and $95 million on the debt service. About $26 million (39 percent) of its operations budget goes toward the cost of collection, including toll booth operators and the Pikepass system.
The authority's five-year capital plan totals $531.3 million and includes more than $212 million for road work and $123 million for bridge projects systemwide.
Ridley said there are currently no plans for further indebtedness, but he would not rule it out. He said a planned multimillion dollar expansion project on the Turner, as well as construction of the Gilcrease — if determined feasible and approved by the state Legislature — could be self-funded projects, independent of the cross pledging system.
If that is indeed the case, it's possible the 2031 bond retirement date will stick.
“We have no plans to extend the debt; we're pretty well set right now,” he said. “But we need to look at what the costs are of making improvements to the turnpike long-range, because in our business you have to look long-term. It's difficult for us to say with any certainty what will happen 21 years from now.”