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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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“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.”


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