THREE years ago, state transportation Secretary Gary Ridley said there were no plans for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to incur further bonded indebtedness, but he didn't rule it out, either. “In our business, you have to look long term,” Ridley said.
This is what the OTA is doing in announcing plans for six major turnpike projects, including two that will mean new toll roads in the Oklahoma City metro area.
One of those turnpikes will be a 21-mile stretch of highway running from Interstate 40, east of Tinker Air Force Base, to Interstate 44 (the Turner Turnpike). The other is a 7-mile project that will connect the Kilpatrick Turnpike, which now ends at I-40 in western Oklahoma County, to State Highway 152/Airport Road.
The east-side turnpike, with a price tag of $300 million, is intended to ease traffic congestion on I-40 and reduce the drive time between the metro area and Tulsa. The other local turnpike, expected to cost $190 million, should improve access to Will Rogers World Airport and improve traffic flow between southwest Oklahoma City and the rest of the metro.
That flow can be a real challenge. One stretch of Interstate 44 handles 163,000 vehicles per day; average daily traffic counts exceeding 120,000 are routine on parts of I-40 and I-35. These new roads in time will offer what Ridley calls “release valves” to help ease those bottlenecks.
Gov. Mary Fallin noted during last week's announcement that population in the metro area is expected to grow to 1.6 million in the next 25 years, an increase of about 500,000 over today. Thus, “If we don't start planning, we're going to have a major crisis on our hands when it comes to congestion, safety, transportation …” Fallin said.
The four other projects involve upgrades to a 7.5-mile stretch of the H.E. Bailey Turnpike, 2.5 miles of new construction on the Gilcrease Expressway in Tulsa, reconstruction of 9.5 miles of the Muskogee Turnpike, and reconstruction work on 22 miles of the Turner Turnpike between Bristow and the Creek Turnpike West, a stretch of highway that has seen 514 accidents and 15 fatalities in the past five years.
The six projects combined are expected to cost $892 million. The turnpike authority intends to work on all six simultaneously, and hopes to complete them in about 3 ½ years.
It's an ambitious project that is sure to be met with at least some resistance by motorists who feel they already deal with enough toll roads in Oklahoma. On the other hand, the projects won't need state-appropriated funds, because they will be paid for with bond issues to be paid back with toll road revenues. So improving existing toll roads or building new ones won't take money away from other much-needed transportation projects.
Nearly 40 percent of Oklahoma toll road revenue comes from out-of-state motorists. They and everyone else who uses toll roads will pay more to do so in the years ahead, as Ridley said a bump in the 15 percent range is possible.
Toll road opponents through the years have said they hurt small towns. Yet the Kilpatrick Turnpike in north Oklahoma City has spurred tremendous development of hotels, stores and businesses. State Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, is among those who believe the new toll road from near Tinker to I-44 could do the same for eastern Oklahoma County, whose towns “have long needed this kind of infrastructure development to attract jobs and expand their local economies.”
In the end, motorists aren't obliged to use Oklahoma's toll roads. Indeed many choose not to. Those who do use them appreciate the convenience afforded by these well-maintained highways, and understand that comes with some cost attached.
As to the two new metro-area tollways, they'll provide motorists with other options for getting around this growing city, and potentially help it grow some more. That's a net positive.
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