This is Why Oklahoma Turnpikes Still Cost Toll Money
Once again, the topic of Oklahoma's toll road system has popped into the normal everyday conversation at some point in your time here. Everybody wonders why the turnpike still costs money even though it was promised to be free one day.
The simple answer is politics, but that answer only leads down a rabbit hole of even more questions.
This is why Oklahoma's turnpikes keep costing drivers.
When America entered its greatest time of prosperity after WWII, state officials wanted to piggyback on the country's road plan. This was before the US Interstate Highway system and those plans didn't matter anyway. Oklahoma wanted to connect the small rural towns to OKC and the easiest way to fund this was by selling bonds to pay for a toll road that drivers would eventually pay off.
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority was created in 1947 and charged with connecting Tulsa and Lawton to Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma's governor at the time, Roy Turner, was a strong supporter of this idea since it would expedite the state's infrastructure construction faster than any department at the federal level could, but it didn't come about without some strong arguments.
Looking out for the people, Governor Turner insisted that any and all toll roads must become free to travel after the debt had been paid, an estimated forty years per toll road. The state legislature agreed and this is how our turnpike system started, but it didn't last long.
Since this pay-it-off/free-use idea didn't benefit some of those involved, they found a sneaky way to bypass the governor and swindle the public.
For whatever reason, with so much buzz about the promise of good and efficient roads to be built across the state, politicians managed to sell a ballot question to the public about a turnpike extension from Lawton to the Texas border.
Naturally, since it would make getting across the Red River convenient, the public voted YES on it without a second thought, but there was something tucked deep into the fine print.
Oklahoma State Question 933 was the vote on whether the H.E. Bailey/Lawton turnpike should extend all the way to the Texas state line, but it was also amended to include a blurb about cross-pledging tolls.
The long and short of it was this... "Cross-pledging" funds would allow multiple road projects to be combined and financed as one. It also allowed for the tolls of all turnpike roads to be collected and used to pay off any road still under construction.
It was sold to the public on a promise that the turnpikes would be paid off faster since all toll roads would collectively pay any toll road debt, so it passed the vote without a second thought.
Little did Oklahoma voters know that they really opened a very expensive can of worms.
This "cross-pledging" of funds went into law with an unrealized consequence. Simply put, as long as there is one toll road to collect for, all toll roads shall keep charging tolls.
Even though most of the Sooner State toll roads have been paid off since last century, we still pay tolls on them because the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority keeps coming up with new toll roads to build. Every new stretch of road resets the collection clock.
As time has gone on, Oklahoma's turnpike system has figured out a way to keep you paying on increasingly neglected roads like the H.E. Bailey Turnpike. They just keep adding roads, extensions, and improvements and the law says we have to keep paying to fund them.
The more projects they greenlight, the longer the public has to pay for use.
Three original Oklahoma turnpike projects have become eleven, and there's no sign of stopping. Three more turnpike projects were just approved even though the public insists there's no real reason for them to be built.
The plan is to connect nowhere in particular with another nowhere in particular around the state capital. A "loop" if you will. Splitting between already established and easily traveled routes from Will Rogers International Airport to another turnpike section on the metro's far east side.
Ironically, most of the new turnpike will exist in perpetuity where State Highway 37 is shockingly smooth, modern, and free to travel now.
What if I don't want to use the turnpikes in protest?
There are alternative routes to pretty much anywhere in the state if you have the patience for them, but what you'll save on tolls will cost you more in time and additional fuel. Like it or not, the costly turnpike system is still the most efficient way to to the places they go.
Could the Oklahoma legislature close the loophole that is costing us more money each year? Sure... theoretically... Truth be told, what politician is going to vote for less government money?