Who runs Oklahoma’s turnpikes and what can we do?

Turnpike tolls are going up in Oklahoma because the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is borrowing millions and millions of dollars to spend.

Who benefits from toll roads?

There is a an argument that toll roads are good because they are “user pay.” In other words, if you don’t want to pay the tolls, don’t go on the turnpikes. There is also a case for not borrowing money to build free roads.

Optimally, we build free roads with a pay-as-you go policy.

When Oklahoma first began building toll roads, there was a law that stated that a toll road had to have a nearby free road.

That’s why you have Highway 66 paralleling the Turner Turnpike from Tulsa to Oklahoma City and from Tulsa to Joplin. The Cherokee Turnpike, from near Chouteau to West Siloam Springs is paralleled by Scenic 412 (which used to Highway 33 years ago).

As a kid, I made many trips along Highway 33 going to and from Tulsa to New Life Ranch in Colcord. My brother went to John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, on Highway 33 just east of the state line.

Highway 33 was a two-lane road with a 55 mph speed limit. It wove through the small towns of Chouteau, Locust Grove, Kansas, Twin Oaks and Leach – among others.

We used to stop and eat at our favorite café in Locust Grove.

Not too long ago, I chose not to take the Cherokee Turnpike in a trip to Branson, Missouri, and opted for Scenic 412.

It was like a ghost town. So many of the businesses I remembered as a youth were boarded up and empty because all of the traffic is now diverted to the turnpike.

I went to college in Norman and I have made countless trips from Tulsa to Oklahoma City via the Turner Turnpike. When I was in college, the toll was $1.60 and there were a couple of times that I chose to take Route 66 to avoid paying the toll.

Back then, there were service stations and restaurants along the Turner Turnpike. Now, there is one McDonalds near Stroud and only three gas stations/convenience stores.

When I drive back from Norman after a late night football game, the only option for a late supper is the drive-through at the over-priced McDonalds on the Turner Turnpike.

If the Turner Turnpike were a free road, imagine the development that would occur along that stretch of road connecting Tulsa and Oklahoma City. I would love to see a 24-hour Cracker Barrel or even a IHOP to compete with McDonalds.

We have all these out-of-state drivers racing through the state’s most important corridor at 75 mph (or faster) and we have no real restaurants to slow them down and spend money. The OTA strategy seems to have been to shut down businesses on the turnpikes and make them locate just outside the exit ramps. The problem with that is that most drivers, including me, just don’t want to exit the turnpike and get back on. It’s just inconvenient.

There used to be a gas station/convenience store and Burger King on the Cherokee Turnpike but that was closed and the buildings were torn down. The turnpike is only about 30 miles long but I had stopped at the Burger King from time to time.

Have you driven on the eastern side of Broken Arrow on the Creek Turnpike? It’s like a ghost town, too. With such a beautiful, lightly traveled road, you would think that each exit would have gas stations, convenience stores, hotels, etc. But there are none. Why? Because no one wants to get on and off a turnpike in city traffic.

All these turnpikes discourage commerce and economic development.

Like almost all the rest of government, the turnpike authority is adept at disguising costs. We use the turnpikes enough to warrant a Pike Pass. I drive straight through and a little “thank you” sign lights up. I have no idea what I am paying. We use a credit card for our account and they send us a printout but who has time to pay much attention? If I had to carry a boatload of quarters to throw in the bucket, I might be more concerned about these big toll increases.

So, if you don’t like something about the state turnpike system, who do you complain to? It’s no help to speak to your state representative or state senator because they have no jurisdiction over the OTA. Neither does our congressional delegation, for that matter.

I would like to know who owns the OTA bonds. And who are the bond companies that are handling this latest round of spending and how much are they going to make. I doubt we will get a report from either of the state’s big newspapers and TV stations don’t have the manpower or will to do stories with that much depth.

I wonder what the OTA would do if everyone stopped using the turnpikes and took the free roads?