• FOX23 INVESTIGATION: Will Oklahoma turnpikes ever be free?

    By: Janna Clark

    Updated:

    Quick Facts:

    • Toll rates will rise on March 1 and many want to know if the toll roads will ever be free
    • FOX23’s Janna Clark found the issue goes back to a promise made six decades ago
    • WATCH her full story above

     

    It's the question the FOX23 investigative team gets more than any other: Will the turnpikes ever be free?

    FOX23’s Janna Clark found it goes back to a promise made six decades ago. She also found there plans for projects on the roads that will lead to more debt.

    A rise in toll rates starts March 1.
    Drivers will pay 12 percent more to take the turnpike, and it’s projected to be up 17 percent in two years.

    It all started first turnpike in the 50's - the Turner Turnpike between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.



    “We had modern four lane high speed facility in 1953 that predated the interstate,” Oklahoma Turnpike Authority executive director Tim Gatz said.

    He said the state didn’t have the money to fill it. So the state decided to charge drivers a toll to use it and when it was paid for it would be free.

    Then Oklahomans voted to allow the turnpike authority to use toll money from the Turner to build more turnpikes and since then the authority's built 10 turnpikes that crisscross the state.

    “When people were voting do you think they really knew what they were voting for? Did they know they were voting for 10 turnpikes or just one more?” Clark asked.

    “The citizens knew what the needs of transportation were, understood what needed to be done and knew there weren’t resources to do it,” Gatz said.

    The plan is to build more.

    “I think the ones we’re looking at are in response to long term critical need,” Gatz said.

    Oklahoma has 605 miles of turnpike road, more than any other toll authority in the country.

    The state Legislature has actually approved 35 that could be built. The authority’s new "Driving Forward" plan includes a new loop in Oklahoma County and projects like widening the Turner Turnpike between Tulsa and Bristow to six lanes.

    Tulsa Attorney Gary Richardson ran for governor in 2001. A big part of his campaign was to make the turnpikes free.

    “It's absolutely a scam on the people in OK to convince them we need them,” Richardson said. “If we did a poll today, we would find out people think it's a state agency and that we get the toll money.”

    “You're not a state agency, right? You're a quasi-agency?” Clark asked.

    “That's a good way to describe it,” Gatz said.

    Established by the Legislature, with a board of six people and the governor. The toll money goes right back to the turnpike authority. It pays off debt that’s now at $880 million.

    “There’s a theory that when you're in a hole you quit digging. We need to find a way out of that hole, instead of just continuing to dig and dig,” Richardson said.

    “Is it bad you're continuing going into debt and deeper now with the new plan?” Clark asked.

    “I think what we're doing in reinvesting in OK,” Gatz said. “The expansions are necessary. Needs are still going unmet, because state doesn't have the resources to meet those. There's no such thing as a free road.”

    Gatz said there are tax supported roads and toll supported roads.

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