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Oklahoma helped pioneer public toll road systems

BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD Modified: September 22, 2012 at 10:28 pm •  Published: September 24, 2012

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority was created in 1947 and tasked with constructing, operating and maintaining a limited access toll road between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The authority issued $38.5 million in revenue bonds for construction of the Turner Turnpike. It opened in 1953.

State lawmakers authorized that same year the construction of three additional turnpikes, and the following year a fourth. In 1955, legislators approved the cross pledging of toll revenue, meaning money collected from each would be pooled and the tolling would continue until all the bonds, systemwide, were retired.

All of these early construction projects, as well as the cross pledging legislation, were approved by state voters.

Oklahoma was among the first to install a public toll road, a user-funded financing plan that originated in Europe and spread to the United States and to the rest of the world. In the U.S., tolling systems replaced one by which state governments sold bonds for roads that often fell apart before the debt was repaid.

The sheer cost of collecting tolls pushed some states to develop another user-funded fee, the fuel tax, said Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning at University of California-Los Angeles.

A federal fuel tax was approved in the 1950s to finance construction and maintenance of the federal highway system, but its structure lent itself to stagnation as both inflation and fuel efficiency increased in subsequent decades, Taylor said.

“The problem with the fuel tax is to keep pace you have to go through the political act of raising a levy, and that became a political liability,” said Taylor, who also directs the university's Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies. “So now there's a turn back in many ways toward tolling, and they've done that I think because they're holding their nose and saying, ‘Well, it seems better than trying to go to voters at election time and saying I tried to raise the gas tax.'”

In Oklahoma, the turnpikes kept coming. Digital technology helped reduce collection and enforcement costs in the 1990s, and by the end of the decade, the state had developed 10 tollways.

$230M in toll revenue

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority currently oversees 606 miles of limited-access highway, almost 600 employees and is projected to collect more than $230 million in toll revenue in 2012. Oklahoma is now one of 32 states with turnpikes.

Bonding programs — as well as public-private partnerships and in some cases total privatization — are increasingly the go-to for states working to overcome dissipating federal funding, declining fuel tax value, an aging infrastructure and growing populations, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Center for Excellence in Project Finance, a nonprofit association.

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