Falling traffic takes toll on Oklahoma turnpikes

MICHAEL MCNUTT Modified: July 16, 2009 at 9:36 am •  Published: July 16, 2009

photo - Cars pass through the  PikePass lane on the Kilpatrick Turnpike in Oklahoma City, OK, Tuesday, June 2, 2009. By Paul Hellstern
Cars pass through the PikePass lane on the Kilpatrick Turnpike in Oklahoma City, OK, Tuesday, June 2, 2009. By Paul Hellstern
Motorists driving on Oklahoma’s 10 turnpikes will pay an average 16 percent more in tolls later this summer.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority approved the toll increases Wednesday, 5-0. The new rates take effect Aug. 4.

The tolls average about 16 percent for both passenger and commercial truck traffic, Phil Tomlinson, the authority’s director, told members. Depending on the destination, the turnpike and the type of vehicle, most of the increases range from 13 percent to 20 percent.

Pikepass account holders still will get a discount of about 5 percent.

Tolls produce the only source of revenue for the Turnpike Authority. About half the toll revenue comes from out-of-state motorists, Tomlinson said.

The higher tolls will bring in about $21 million a year.

Without the toll increase the Turnpike Authority was looking at a shortfall of about $21 million this year. Because the toll increases will take effect more than halfway through the year, they won’t generate enough money to reverse budget cuts. The authority’s capital improvement budget was cut this year from about $64 million to about $35 million.

Without a toll increase, next year’s capital improvements plan was targeted to receive only about $13 million to maintain the system’s bridges and about 600 miles of toll roads.

Trucks equal dollars
The increase, the first since 2001, is necessary to make up for declining revenue, mostly caused by a continuing slide of commercial truck traffic accented by the nation’s recession, Tomlinson told authority members.

The decline in truck traffic has a major effect on the authority because tractor-trailers and commercial trucks pay a higher rate than passenger vehicles. While traffic is up on the urban turnpikes, those tolls can’t compensate for the trucking decline because they are for shorter distances, he said.

Christopher Mwalwanda, vice president of Wilbur Smith Associates, a firm hired by the Turnpike Authority to look at adjusting the tolls, said the national recession is causing many turnpikes across the country to increase tolls.



TURNPIKES IN OKLAHOMA

• The state’s first turnpike, the Turner Turnpike, opened in 1953. It was intended to be a free roadway by the time it was paid off.


• In 1954, more turnpikes were built and in 1955, state law was changed to allow two or more turnpikes to be combined and financed as one project. The change also allowed cross-pledging of revenues to help pay the obligations of all the turnpikes.


• The last toll increase was in 2001.


• While the state Transportation Department depends on legislative appropriations, the Turnpike Authority receives no tax money to operate the turnpikes.


• The Turnpike Authority has its own maintenance crews that work on the turnpikes.


• The Turnpike Authority still owes about $1.1 billion on bonds used to build the roads. It’s expected the roads could be paid off by 2028.


• Any new toll road or expansion requires legislative approval.


How much tolls will increase
The increases that take effect Aug. 4 vary on each toll road and with each destination on the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority system. Pikepass discounts of about 5 percent still apply. Some examples:


• The trip for a passenger vehicle motorist paying cash from Oklahoma City to Tulsa on the Turner Turnpike will increase 14 percent, from $3.50 to $4.


• The trip for a passenger vehicle motorist paying cash from Oklahoma City to Wichita Falls, Texas, on the H.E. Bailey Turnpike will increase 19 percent, from $4 to $4.75.


• The trip for a passenger vehicle motorist paying cash from Tulsa to the state line on the Will Rogers Turnpike will increase 14 percent, from $3.50 to $4.


• Tolls at various stops on the Creek Turnpike in Tulsa for passenger vehicles increase from 13 percent to 17 percent.


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