More borrowing, higher tolls

Turnpike Authority will borrow $892,000,000.00 for extensions, reconstructions

Gov. Mary Fallin and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority  want to borrow $892,000,000.00 and raise rates for expansion of the state’s toll roads.

Fallin said the huge loan would have no impact on the state budget. In October, Fallin issued an executive order to state authorities, boards and commissions to prepare plans for a 10 percent across-the-board budget shortfall. A second executive order from Fallin instructed agency heads to sell surplus property to raise operating cash.

This year, the Oklahoma Legislature and Fallin approved $50,000,000.00 in borrowing for museums in Tulsa and Oklahoma City despite a $611,000,000.00 budget shortfall (out of a discretionary state budget of over $7,000,000,000.00.

The decision to borrow the money through bonds is up to the OTA and is not subject to legislative action or a vote of the people.

“As Oklahoma’s population grows, it will require a greater commitment to modernizing and improving our transportation infrastructure,” said Fallin. “Making these investments today will prevent our state from having to respond to a crisis in the future.”

The project includes work on the Gilcrease Expressway, Muskogee Turnpike, Turner Turnpike, H.E. Bailey Turnpike, Kilpatrick Turnpike and a new Oklahoma City turnpike.

Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley said there will be “modest” toll increases. The work is expected to start in the second half of 2015.

In Tulsa, the Gilcrease Expressway project should connect West 21st Street North to Edison Street  and then connect to U.S. 412. The OTA will build a bridge over the Arkansas River. The City of Tulsa will have some level of participation in that project. Mayor Dewey Bartlett indicated funding has not yet been secured and no costs estimates have been made public.

Oklahoma Turnpike Authority was established in 1947 to construct, operate and maintain Oklahoma turnpikes. Over the years, political promises to use the toll fees to pay off the debt of the turnpikes and turn them into free roads have not been fulfilled.

“Oklahoma’s transportation leaders have always been very cognizant about the need to plan for future growth,” said Kell Kelly, chairman of the OTA Board of Directors. “If all we are doing is worrying about the current transportation problems, we have done a real disservice to our kids and grandkids and have not as a board fulfilled the mission of the authority. Our mission is to provide our customers with a choice of a safe, convenient, efficient, user-funded transportation network focusing on fiscal responsibility and promoting economic development.”

“We must make plans now for population and economic growth so we can be in a good position for increased traffic that is going to happen in Oklahoma,” said OTA Executive Director Tim Stewart. “I know there might be some who would like for us to wait, or just do a little at a time, but the need is now and will become stronger in the future to make our system safer and easier for our customers.”

For the past three years, Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee has wanted more money for roads for eastern Oklahoma County.

“The timing of this is crucial because of the additional 3,000 jobs coming to Tinker Air Force Base with Boeing,” said Sharp, R-Shawnee.   “But this isn’t something that’s just going to benefit the Oklahoma City metro. This will have a major impact on surrounding towns like Jones, Luther, Choctaw and Harrah.  Our rural communities in eastern Oklahoma County have long needed this kind of infrastructure development to attract jobs and expand their local economies.”

Sharp said he’s worked closely with Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley, Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) Executive Director Mike Patterson and Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) Executive Director Tim Stewart on this project.

In order to accommodate the anticipated increase in larger vehicles, such as semi-trucks moving goods and equipment, the OTA is working to increase the height of the bridge on Hogback Road, between Jones and Luther.

New east and westbound ramps will also be included at that location.