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'Ugly duckling' road draws controversy

By Michael McNutt Published: July 31, 2005
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It's been labeled the "ugly duckling" of the turnpike system.

Before it even was built, the Chickasaw Turnpike was figured to be a loser.

The turnpike was built after legislators in 1987 passed a bill tying the Ada-to-Sulphur route to new turnpikes Gov. Henry Bellmon proposed for Oklahoma City and Tulsa and northeastern Oklahoma. The turnpike authority's engineering firm said projected revenues would not cover the operations and maintenance -- let alone debt service on the bonds for the Chickasaw Turnpike.

The Oklahoma City and Tulsa turnpikes -- the John Kilpatrick and the Creek -- have been the fastest-growing turnpikes the last 10 years. Toll income on each increased from about $3 million to more than $16 million a year. The Kilpatrick in 2004 recorded 26.3 million transactions and the Creek recorded 28.3 million.

Since it opened in 1991 -- close to the time the two metro turnpikes opened -- toll revenue on the 17.3-mile Chickasaw, which cost $32 million to build, has never topped $487,000 a year. The turnpike recorded 668,254 transactions in 2004.

Opponents say the road should never have been built, but proponents say the turnpike's success was hampered by it being a two-lane road.

"We ended up just building a two-lane turnpike because we could build all or any part of it," said Neal McCaleb, a former secretary of transportation. "It's never had any traffic on it."

McCaleb said he told legislative supporters the Chickasaw was not financially feasible, but many responded that it was politically feasible.

Former state Sen. Darryl Roberts, D-Ardmore, said turnpike construction is "awfully political."

"Every one of those roads are political," said Roberts, who supported the Chickasaw.

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Free vs. toll
Neal McCaleb, a former state secretary of transportation, said he has "never seen a free road."

"You can have tax roads and you can have turnpikes, the self-financed roads," McCaleb said.

People pay taxes, which are used to build and maintain roads. A toll is just a pay-as-you-use fee, he said.

The problem, as McCaleb sees it, is that legislators generally get excited about building new roads, but the state rarely appropriates enough money to maintain them.

By the numbers
1947: The Legislature creates the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to build a toll road between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The late Gov. Roy J. Turner proposed the turnpike to encourage commerce. "It was never going to be built with tax money," McCaleb said, "and so the Legislature and Governor Turner decided to build it the only way they could, and that was to finance it with bonds."

606 miles: The cumulative length of turnpikes in Oklahoma, second only to New York, with 641 miles.

7: Members of the Oklahoma Transportation Authority, which manages the state's 10 turnpikes. The authority consists of the governor as an ex-officio member and six members appointed by the governor. Doug Riebel of Oklahoma City is the chairman. Others on the authority are Mike Leonard of Muskogee, Greg Massey of Durant, Clark Brewster of Tulsa, Hal Ellis of Stillwater and Ken Fergeson of Altus. The director is Phil Tomlinson, Gov. Brad Henry's secretary of transportation.

$187.3 million: Turnpike toll and concession receipts for 2004 ($185.9 million in tolls and $1.4 million in concessions). McDonald's and EZ Go Foods have concessions leases with the Transportation Authority. The companies also pay a small percentage of sales.

2001: Year of the last toll increase.

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