Sunday, March 19, 2023


 Weekly Opinion Editorial


by Steve Fair


     The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) is an authorized quasi state agency.  It was created, by statute, in 1947 to construct, maintain, repair and operate turnpike projects authorized by the state legislature and approved by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (DOT).  The OTA issues revenue bonds for the purpose of paying costs of constructing the turnpikes.  The bonds are paid back solely from the tolls and do not constitute indebtedness to the state.  The OTA has been described as similar to a public utility.

     The OTA board has seven members.  The governor is an ex-officio member.  The other six members, who serve without pay for eight-year terms, are appointed by the governor.  The board members can be removed by the governor at any time, without cause, and replaced. The OTA has around 650 full time employees.  It takes in over $330 million annually in tolls.

     In August 2022, the Council of Bond Oversight approved $500 million in revenue bonds OTA could issue to expand Oklahoma’s toll roads.  The OTA plans to use the money to widen the Kilpatrick, Turner, and the Will Rogers turnpikes.  They also plan to improve the Gilcrease and the Creek. 

     OTA’s 15-year plan is called ‘Access Oklahoma.’  The plan, “identities and addresses on-going highway infrastructure needs to improve access to communities across Oklahoma.”  To view the plan, go to:

     Until last week, the OTA had never been audited by the state auditor’s office.  That is about to change.  On Wednesday, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond requested State Auditor Cindy Byrd conduct an investigative audit of the OTA.  “I have had many conversations over the past few months with legislators, community leaders, private citizens and state employees who have expressed a wide array of concerns with the financials conduct of the OTA.  These concerns include, but are not limited to improper transfers between the OTA and DOT, improper contracting and purchasing practices, and inadequate internal financial controls,” Drummond said. Three observations:

     First, the OTA is a private business controlled by Oklahoma government.  Most Oklahomans don’t realize when they toss their quarters into the basket, the money doesn’t go to the state- it goes to bondholders.  The governor sovereignly controls the OTA.  Not only is the governor on the authority, but they hand select the other members.  There have been a number of failed attempts by legislators through the years to fold the OTA under the DOT, but the bondholders are a powerful lobbying group.  Each attempt is met with resistance and the proposals never come to a vote on the floor.

     Second, Oklahoma has a long history with toll roads.  Oklahoma was the first state west of Pennsylvania to construct a toll road.  The Turner Turnpike, named for Governor Roy Turner, was authorized in 1947 and opened in 1953.  When built, Oklahomans were told once it was ‘paid off,’ the toll booths would come down.  Because the OTA ‘cross pledges’ the turnpikes in the state, no single turnpike is ever paid off. 

     Oklahoma has 10 toll roads comprising over 600 miles.  Fifteen percent of Oklahoma roads are toll roads.  The state ranks only behind Florida in number of miles of toll roads and behind New Hampshire in percentage of total roads vs. toll roads. 

     Third, the audit is long past due.  Tim Gatz, executive director of the OTA, says he welcomes the scrutiny of the audit.  Gatz claims the OTA is well run and managed, but not all of OTA’s expansion is being met with enthusiasm. In December, 150 citizens of Cleveland County, who oppose expansion of turnpikes around Norman, filed suit against the OTA claiming it violated the Open Meeting Act.  Cleveland County Associate District Judge Timothy Olsen agreed with them, saying the OTA intentionally violated the Open Meeting Act by discussing business not on the pre-published agenda. He ruled any business conducted on the items not published is void. The OTA has appealed the ruling.

     Turnpike expansion was a campaign issue in last year’s gubernatorial race.  Governor Stitt’ opponent, Joy Hofmeister, pledged to request an audit of the OTA if she was elected.  Some of Hofmeister’s advisors are now working for Drummond and some believe those staffers are behind the audit request.  Whatever the motivation/reason for Drummond’s request, more sunlight on what is going on at OTA is good for Oklahoma.

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