Monday, November 9, 2015
By the Tulsa World's Editorial Writers
Published Sunday, November 8, 2015
Gov. Mary Fallin has rolled out an $892 million turnpike plan to improve roads across the state, including several critical projects for the Tulsa area.
The most innovative part of the plan is a 2.5-mile stretch of the Gilcrease Expressway in northwest Tulsa, including a bridge across the Arkansas River.
The city and the Indian Nations Council of Governments have been slowly inching forward on Gilcrease construction for years, but the river crossing always has been the roadblock to completion. Its expense simply is beyond the ability of local government to pay for it in any timely fashion.
A toll bridge, combined with innovative bond funding through the Oklahoma Department of Transportation gets the project closer to completion. Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley says construction on the project could start as soon as next summer, and the project could be finished 18 months later.
The state is looking at financing the Gilcrease Expressway separately from the state’s turnpike network, meaning that once the project is paid off, it could be transferred to the city, which could continue to operate the toll bridge as a revenue source for other road projects or make it toll-free.
City leaders have long thought that the Gilcrease Expressway was the key to developing one of the largest swaths of open land within the Tulsa city limits. Good transportation could bring residential development to bolster the population and the property tax base.
The Gilcrease project would mark the turnpike authority’s most aggressive move into toll roads without toll stations — a nonstop turnpike. Plans call for all tolls to be collected electronically. PikePass customers (currently 71 percent of turnpike tolls and 82 percent in the Tulsa market) would have their fees collected in the usual fashion. Other drivers would be billed after their license plate information is captured by cameras on the roads. It’s a system that was previously announced for a Creek Turnpike interchange improvement in Jenks and which has worked successfully in other states.
Other projects in the governor’s turnpike plan also are important to Tulsa. A 22-mile section of the Turner Turnpike from Tulsa to Bristow would be reconstructed and widened. Taking the toll road to six lanes will make travel to and from Oklahoma City safer and faster.
Eventually, state officials plan rebuilding and widening the entire length of the turnpike. The Tulsa end was chosen to go first because of the high number of traffic accidents recorded.
Another piece of the plan is reconstruction of the Muskogee Turnpike from the Creek Turnpike interchange to Oklahoma 51 near Coweta. The 9.5-mile project will fix a dangerous stretch of road and make toll collection faster.
Outside of metro Tulsa, the plan includes widening and improving 7.5 miles of the H.E. Bailey Turnpike near Oklahoma City and a 7-mile expansion of the Kilpatrick Turnpike into southwest Oklahoma City.
Tulsans like to grumble about turnpikes, and it’s hard to miss the fact that the city is girded by pay-to-play highways. The routes to Oklahoma City, Joplin, Fayetteville, Muskogee, Dallas and Stillwater all come at a price, as does a major road around the southern outskirts of the metropolitan area.
But those complaints are based on a false alternative. The choice is not between a toll road and a tax-supported road (there are no free roads). The choice is between a toll road and no road.
Turnpikes are user fees: The motorists getting the benefit of the system are paying for it, and in many cases — nearly 40 percent of the time — those people paying for the road live out of state.
The governor’s turnpike projects are a smart way to help the state economy become more efficient and productive without taking money away from other state services in a difficult economic period. It’s good for Tulsa and good for the state.