Turnpike tolls going towards debt

by: Janna Clark Updated:

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TULSA, Okla. —

FOX23 found out when you pay to drive on turnpikes you're helping to pay millions toward debt.

When the first turnpike opened between Tulsa and Oklahoma City lawmakers said once it was paid for, it would be free.

FOX23’s Janna Clark looked into why there are so many turnpikes now and whether any of them will ever be free.

“Are you spending a lot on turnpikes?” Clark asked a driver.

“Absolutely,” said Brett Mason.

The same goes for Kris Thorn, who lives behind the Creek Turnpike.

“I'm on the turnpike for 10 minutes and I pay two tolls,” said Thorn.

Thorn and Mason both take turnpikes to go to work, Thorn pays $500 a year and Mason pays $700.

“Do you think the Turnpike Authority's raking it in?” asked Clark.

“It's got to be astronomical,” said Mason.

“That’s a misconception that we're out building turnpikes because we're money hungry that's not true at all,” said Jack Damrill, with the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.

Damrill said they build roads the state can't afford to build.

“I've heard a lot of people complain about having to pay tolls,” said Clark.

“Let me stress this is a user-based system. They don't have to take the turnpike,” said Damrill.

Damrill pointed out that out-of-state drivers pay 40 percent of the tolls.

“It's not all Oklahomans paying,” said Damrill.

Lawmakers decided to build the first turnpike between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, which opened in 1953.

“The idea was we're going to charge people to drive on it and once it's paid for it will be free?” asked Clark.

“Correct,” said Damrill.

“You'd think it would be paid for by now,” said Thorn.

“I think the original intent has gone to the wayside,” said Mason.

He's right. One year later, Oklahomans voted to let the Turnpike Authority use money from one turnpike to pay to maintain another turnpike.

Now there are 10 turnpikes, more than 600 miles worth.

Damrill said lawmakers have already given the green light to build 28 more turnpikes.

“You could build more?” said Clark.

“We could build more,” said Damrill.

“Why don't you?” said Clark.

“There’s not a need for them,” he said.

According to a Turnpike Authority report, last year it collected $233 million in tolls. It spent $22 million on turnpike maintenance, $19 million on toll operations, $13 million on highway patrol and $13 million for Pikepass customer service.

But it spent the most, 39 percent, on its debt about $97 million.

“With so much being generated, why are you in debt?” asked Clark.

"We incurred the debt to build these roadways and it takes years to pay off,” said Damrill.

In fact, the Turnpike Authority owes almost $1 billion in debt and isn't scheduled to pay off that debt until 2031.

At that time, the state could take over the turnpikes if it has the money.

“Could the Department of Transportation take on all these turnpikes?” asked Clark.

“At this time, no, they could not,” said Damrill.

“Do you think the turnpikes will ever be free?” asked Clark.

“Can I say they'll ever be free? I'm not sure,” said Damrill.

“So it's possible but no promises?” said Clark.

“No promises,” said Damrill.

FOX23 called the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to ask if they could take over the turnpikes right now and they said, no way; they're still playing catch-up to repair roads they said have been ignored for years.