Oklahoma needs answers concerning its toll roads, says Gary Richardson

February 21, 2013

It will take a courageous act of leadership for Oklahomans to learn the truth about the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, according to Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson.

Richardson told a packed audience of the Tulsa County Men’s Republican Club on Feb. 13 that the OTA is not a state agency and that the state does not profit from operation of the turnpikes.

“If the people knew the truth, there would be an uprising,” Richardson said.

Richardson first focused the spotlight on the OTA in his failed run for governor in 2001. He is not running for any public office and he said he does not go out of his way to talk about the turnpike situation.

“It’s the biggest scam that has even been pulled off in this state,” said Richardson.

During his campaign for governor, Richardson said he spoke with State Sen. Brad Henry (who eventually won the race) and corrected Henry who misspoke about the turnpikes. Henry said that the state “couldn’t afford” to lose the revenues from the tolls.

“The state doesn’t get one red cent from the turnpikes,” Richardson said.

Richardson, an independent who finished third behind Democrat Henry and Republican Steve Largent, said in 2001, in the 27 states west of the Mississippi River, there were only nine rural turnpikes.

And eight of those are in Oklahoma.

“Why is that?” Richardson asked.

Richardson said one of the frustrating parts of his research on turnpikes was that no one will reveal who owns the bonds. The authority sells bonds to build toll roads and tolls repay the bonds. And contrary to popular belief, the turnpikes are located on private property (owned by the authority) and not on public lands.

“We cannot find out who the bond owners are,” Richardson said.

Tulsa County Assessor Ken Yazel, who was at the luncheon, said he is encouraging legislators to look into charging property taxes on turnpike land since it is not owned by the state.

When he announced he would run for governor, Richardson asked for and got a meeting with members of the OTA.

“I asked them to convince me I was wrong,” Richardson said. “Give me facts and documents.”

None were forthcoming.

Richardson said it is frustrating to deal with the media concerning the OTA because it is such a “hot topic.”

Retired editorial writer Ken Neal of the Tulsa World angrily poked his finger in Richardson’s chest during the campaign and told him he was wrong.

Richardson instructed Neal to keep his hands off him and asked him, “Are you lying about the turnpikes or do you just not know the truth?”

Neal had no answer.

“The thing that bothers me the most is that the people of Oklahoma do not know the truth,” Richardson said. “We need to find out the identity of the bond owners.”

Richardson said a television reporter and a newspaper reporter from Oklahoma City both interviewed him and later the stories were either killed or watered down.

“When the Turner Turnpike was built, when it was paid for it was supposed to revert back to ownership of the state,” Richardson said. “Instead, the Turnpike Authority has used that money to build more toll roads and sell more bonds.

“We were duped.”

Richardson scoffed at the idea that Oklahoma could not build roads without having tolls.

“Why can other states have highways without turnpikes?” Richardson asked. “Give me a break. We are not that much poorer than other states with free roads.”

Richardson said the OTA operates like it is a state agency under legislation crafted by former State Rep. Gene Stipe and former Gov. Henry Bellmon.

“The governor could call for an audit of the OTA,” Richardson said. “I don’t believe that has ever happened.”

Oklahoma would be better served with free highways and he cited the Turner Turnpike between Tulsa and Oklahoma as prime example.

“Rural turnpikes destroy economic development,” Richardson said. “It reduces the value of adjoining property and it cuts property tax revenues.

“If the people of Oklahoma knew the truth, there would be an uprising.”

Richardson was the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma from 1981 to 1984 and was the Republican nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in Oklahoma’s Second Congressional District in 1978 and 1980, both times losing to Mike Synar.

The Tulsa County GOP men’s club meets at noon on the second Wednesday of each month at the Hibachi Grill, 74th Street and Memorial Drive. The public is invited.