Weekly Opinion Editorial
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
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
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: https://www.accessoklahoma.com.
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.