Tulsa, Okla.— If you've ever traveled outside of Tulsa by car, chances are you've had to take a turnpike. It’s difficult to not encounter a toll road in Oklahoma, where more than 600 miles of pay-to-drive roads stretch the state.
Turnpike critics are calling the state’s toll roads a scam— and groups rallying for an end to the turnpike authority are gaining momentum.
What began as a temporary transportation solution has morphed into an entity worth more than a billion dollars. The agency sells bonds to pay for existing roads and to build new ones, but critics say it’s the bond holders- not the state-- getting rich.
Salina resident Landa Kretchmar says she spends up to $80 a month on Oklahoma turnpikes.
“Very big hassle, it like drains your bank account,” Kretchmar said.
Kretchmar lost her leg in a car wreck. Her prosthetic leg often requires several trips a month to Oklahoma City— she also drives her special needs son several turnpike miles each week to school.
"A vicious circle, I mean it's just constantly paying for something," she said.
At least one turnpike opponent compares tolls to a disease.
“The turnpike I say Brian is like cancer in a body. The turnpikes are destroying this state,” said Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson.
Former federal prosecutor Gary Richardson ran for governor as an independent candidate in 2002.
“There would be an up-rise in this state overnight if people really knew the truth about the turnpike,” he said.
Toll roads stretch for more than 600 miles in Oklahoma, giving the state a unique distinction.
“Number one in the nation when it comes to turnpike mileage per capita number one, number two when it comes to mileage,” Richardson said.
Oklahoma Turnpike Authority Director Tim Getz says the turnpike system has played a vital role in economic development since the first one opened to traffic in 1953.
“The toll network has just been a mechanism to meet those needs that would largely go unmet otherwise because of a lack of general resources to go in and build those types of safe modern high-speed facilities,” said OTA Director Tim Getz.
The “Turner Turnpike” connected Tulsa to Oklahoma City in 1953. Planners back then estimated those bonds would be paid off in about 20 years. Then the tolls would be removed and the state would own and maintain the highway. But that never happened. Instead, voters approved a cross-funding referendum in 1954. Cross-funding allowed profits from the first turnpike to be used to build additional turnpikes. It’s a practice that continues today.
“It was quickly realized that there were was going to be a long-term need to continue to try to expand the transportation network through toll roads,” Getz said.
Today, the agency’s bond debt is $1.2 billion, set to be paid off by 2031. But that date will soon change as the OTA prepares to sell more bonds later this year.
The authority paid more than $80 million to bond holders during the last two years.
Bond holders aren't publicly listed. They are investors who buy and sell the bonds, much like stocks, on the open market.
According to the Authority’s documents, the agency will spend more than $200 million in paving maintenance and resurfacing projects alone.
2 Works For You iinvestigators obtained documents showing many of the companies awarded maintenance contracts are foreign owned. While the majority of the projects are awarded to domestic-owned companies, a majority of the money paid out goes to foreign-owned companies. Hundreds of millions of dollars going not just to other states, but to other countries.
Turnpike toll revenues, 2003-15 (in millions of dollars) These do not include concession revenues.
2003 — $179.3
2004 — $185.9
2005 — $191.2
2006 — $194.5
2007 — $196.7
2008 — $196.2
2009 — $204.8
2010 — $228.5
2011 — $227.6
2012 — $233.5
"Of course we know there's going to be more turnpikes unless we do something to put a stop to it so when is the end, it isn't in sight," Richardson said.
Toll revenues are up 43 percent since 2003, to a record $245 million last year. The agency says it made a profit of about $45 million in 2015.
Costs to maintain the turnpikes— resurfacing or replacing pavement-- can run between $500,000 per mile up to a little more than $3 million per mile, according to OTA Director Tim Getz.
Critics have also pointed to how much the OTA spends to maintain its more than 600 miles of roads. 2 Works For You looked at how much other states spend on road maintenance compared with other states.
Missouri has the lowest spending per mile in the region and among the lowest in the nation, largely due to the large number of miles it maintains. Missouri has the seventh largest transportation system in the country and ranks 46th in revenue spent per mile. The only states lower are Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.
Kansas $71,249 per mile
Oklahoma $65,216 per mile
Iowa $62,472 per mile
Arkansas $61,574 per mile
Missouri $14,739 per mile
Critics doubt we'll ever see toll roads go away, unless lawmakers put the brakes on adding more turnpikes.
Turnpike drivers will likely be paying even more soon. A system-wide 16 percent toll hike is on the table to help pay for expanding and building turnpikes in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City areas.
The state does not run an audit on the OTA’s financial reports, but the agency is independently audited. For more financial information about the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, including the agency’s 2015 budget click here.