Tim Gatz says he thoroughly enjoyed his 25-plus years with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, where he rose to become deputy director, and he feels the same way about his first six months as director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. Credit some of the latter to his clear conviction about the OTA's work.
The agency is public enemy No. 1 among some residents in eastern Oklahoma County who will be affected by construction of a 22-mile toll road connecting Interstate 40 to I-44. This turnpike has been, by far, the most controversial piece of the OTA's “Driving Forward” initiative announced in October 2015.
The agency also finds itself before the Oklahoma Supreme Court battling a lawsuit that challenges the OTA's bonding authority. The plaintiff contends a state statute that permits bonds to be issued for several turnpikes simultaneously violates the state constitution's prohibition against “logrolling,” or placing several issues into a single law.
Fully implementing the Driving Forward plan will require the OTA incurring $480 million in additional bond debt. That debt will be serviced by higher tolls — another point of contention among many motorists. The OTA in September approved a 17 percent toll increase over three years, contingent on the lawsuit's resolution.
Gatz notes that Oklahoma's toll rates per mile are nearly 60 percent lower than the national average for passenger vehicles, and 63 percent below the national average for heavy trucks. In addition, about 40 percent of toll revenue comes from out-of-state motorists. These points aren't likely to placate Oklahoma motorists who will pay more, but no one is obliged to use toll roads, even if they do make travel easier.
Another truth is that the two new turnpikes planned under Driving Forward are needed to address ever-increasing traffic flow — and traffic safety — in the metro area. The volume of traffic on I-35, I-44 and I-40 in and around Oklahoma City already exceeds the levels expected when they were built.
“Interstate volumes are not going to decrease. They're just not,” Gatz, 51, told The Oklahoman's editorial board. “We probably should have started some of these reliever route projects 10 years ago, 15 years ago.”
The eastern Oklahoma County turnpike is intended to ease the congestion on I-40 that is a part of every daily commute. A 6-mile extension of the Kilpatrick Turnpike on the southwest side of the city will provide another way for motorists to make their way through that area while providing some relief on I-40.
Announcement of Driving Forward was followed by three overflow and raucous town hall meetings with eastern Oklahoma County residents. Before the first of those, in February, Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley said he and the turnpike authority had “really messed up as to how the information was distributed to the public.”
Sore feelings remain. The final route will displace 80-100 people. “We realize that those aren't houses, they're families,” Gatz said. “We're asking them to make an extreme sacrifice.” His aim is to be “as compassionate as we can be when we work with these folks.”
Ultimately, however, the OTA's new man in charge firmly believes this as well: “This is what we have to do. We've got to continue to make these kinds of investments and be forward-thinking.”