As much as I don’t want to see a turnpike out my window, I believe this is a much bigger problem than a new tollway. I have to ask myself, what kind of state government do I want to be a citizen of? What kind of Oklahoma are we living in?
The Late Supreme Court Justice, Robert H. Jackson said, “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizens from falling into error, it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”
To understand what we are facing, it is necessary to understand how we got here. In 1907 the people of Oklahoma consented to have a government. When the people consented to be governed they adopted clauses in the Oklahoma State Constitution to protect the citizens.
Article 2 Section 32 of the State Constitution says, “Perpetuities and monopolies are contrary to the genius of a free government, and shall never be allowed”. As stated by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, “No interest is good unless it must vest, if at all, not later than twenty-one years after some life in being at the creation of the interest.” (Melcher v. Camp)
After WWII Governor Roy Turner collaborated with the Senate and House to establish the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. (1947). The OTA was authorized to issue bonds, construct, operate, and maintain the highway, and then RETURN it to the Highway Commission, which we now call Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT), when its cost was recouped. The 88 mile long Turner Turnpike opened in the spring of 1953.
During the 1950s and 1960s the OTA constructed and opened 6 more turnpikes. Then in the 90’s 4 more were opened. By 2021 the OTA operated 12 toll roads comprising 630 miles.
The initial bonds issued for the first turnpike in Oklahoma were supposed to be paid back and then the Oklahoma Highway commission (now ODOT) was supposed to assume control of the highways.
Why does it matter that this didn’t happen? There’s a couple of reasons.
First, the Turner Turnpike initial funding source has been used like a revolving door fund. They have used that turnpike toll payments to pay off the debts of smaller turnpikes that do not have enough traffic to pay off themselves. The OTA uses the large turnpikes to pay the debts of small turnpikes. So you may be paying a toll on the Turner turnpike for a turnpike you are not even riding on. This is just bad business. If these turnpikes don’t have enough funding from their tolls to pay for themselves, why are they necessary?
This obtuse source of funding has been in place since the middle of the 20th century. The OTA has essentially created a monopoly. If the OTA is a “state agency”, why is it not held to the standards of the Oklahoma State Constitution? Is this “revolving door” funding not in direct violation of Article 2 Section 32? The state has had a debt on the Tulsa to OKC turnpike since it was built, this is a debt in perpetuity and a clear violation of the Oklahoma Constitution.
Why has the Oklahoma Supreme Court let this happen? Well, one suspicion is that the Court is bought and sold by the legislature. The Court may be afraid of appropriations being cut. There is a problem with the way we appoint Oklahoma Supreme Court Judges, but that’s a matter for a different discussion. The Second major reason this method of funding is a major problem is this, why do we have two Oklahoma departments to maintain our highways? There is functionally no difference between ODOT and OTA.
Are we trying to confuse our taxpayers? Or maybe keep the taxpayers in an asymmetrical relationship with information needed to vote in one’s best interest?
In order to get federal money for projects you have to hold public meetings and at least pretend to take the public’s input into consideration. The OTA avoids this process by funding its projects through bonds. The OTA has “stakeholders” like the highway contractor lobbyists, trucking industry lobbyists, the county commissioners, and county mayors. Having accountability to stakeholders is like having accountability to corporate board members. What we are seeing is the corporatization of our government. This is painfully “accepted” at the federal level where legislators are somehow multi-millionaires on $200,000 per year salaries. But right here at home? Here in “conservative” Oklahoma, this is what we have allowed to happen?
“It is not the function of our government to keep the citizens from falling into error, it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”
You may remember in the late 80s and early 90s when Oklahoma raised the gas tax on vehicles .03 cents per gallon. Heavy trucks pay the same amount as standard automobiles. This doesn’t make much sense, given a standard heavy truck burns more fuel and causes damage equivalent to 9,600 automobiles. What’s even worse, rather than establishing a highway cost allocation study, based on the equity ratio model that can be relied upon and reform our cost recovery based on that information, Oklahoma leaders asked taxpayers to foot the bill.
Under Frank Keating, legislators passed the billion dollar highway package in 1996. The Secretary of Transportation asked the taxpayers for a billion dollars, claiming there was 11 billion dollars worth of damage done to the roads (primarily by heavy trucks). Then, $850 million dollars was pledged for improvements in the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) which was successful in the expansion of highways but did little for the existing roads and bridges. Five years later a barge struck one of the piers on the I-40 bridge over the Arkansas River resulting in 14 fatalities and bringing national attention to the condition of Oklahoma roads and bridges.
After CIP there was a 264% increase in unfunded highway maintenance. Why are the leaders who pledged taxpayer funds to “fix” our bridges and roads not held accountable? Why do we turn a blind eye when they build more highways instead of improving the conditions of our current infrastructure?
Lawmakers will undeniably blame the taxpayers for voting against raising taxes in the first place. In 2005 SQ 723’s rejection was interpreted as a sign that the voters wanted the state to address its infrastructure problem using bonds rather than through a tax increase. The bonds are not being used to fix our existing infrastructure. Revenue bonds are being used to build more unnecessary turnpikes. But that escapes the real issue, taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for the damage done to our roads by big trucks. Tax the corporations that are using our state highways for the equitable cost of the damage done to our roads by heavy trucks.
So why does this have anything to do with the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority?
ODOT receives funding from the taxes levied on fuel. The average tax rate per mile for Oklahoma is .03 cents. For a class 5 typical heavy truck and trailer to travel from OKC to Tulsa on the OTA turnpike it costs approximately .20 cents per mile.
Does OTA know something that ODOT does not?
The problems Oklahoma has with big trucks were exacerbated when I 40 was hammered through the old Union Station. Railroads were the most efficient way to move large goods. Railroads even made ODOT a profit, something the state highways will never do. So why does Oklahoma continue to bust up the Railroads? Maybe it’s the masculine desire to compete with our sister state, Texas, and the ever expanding presidential named tollway systems that keep being built. Or maybe it has something to do with the oil boom that required trucks and trailers to travel into areas without established railroads?
One thing is for sure, Bureaucracy is now the boss. The tail is wagging the dog. Coined by political theorist Hannah Arendt, “evil acts are not necessarily perpetrated by evil people. Instead, they can simply be the result of bureaucrats dutifully obeying orders.”
This all begs the question, if the original intent of the original plan had been followed, and the Turner Turnpike had been placed under the control of ODOT after the bonds were repaid by the Turner tolls, would the OTA be the bond-funded monopoly that it is today? If the OTA is accountable to its stakeholders, not the citizens of Oklahoma, do we really want any more property in the hands of the turnpike? It is important to understand that self interest is a driving factor of the OTA. They don’t care about the lifestyles of the people they take land from. They care about the continuing flow of money.
Republicans and Democrats take equal blame in the corruption of the OTA. There is a revolving door between ODOT and OTA. Historically most of the Secretary’s of Transportation have held the position in charge of oversight for both agencies. This sounds like a dream for special interest groups, highway and truck lobbies, and bondholders.
No need to get public approval or require prior notice or voting on new tollways. The OTA can just go sell some bonds and acquire the funds to do whatever they want. This is a threat to our system of government. The very spearhead of corporatization of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma waited until very recently to expand Medicaid on the facade of being against “big government”. These are the same leaders and legislators who support the OTA taking people’s private property. So legislators delayed taking care of the less fortunate by expanding health care because it’s “big government” but they will allow an unconstitutional quasi-governmental agency to rip people out of their established homes and communities for economic growth? What could be more “big government” than having your property taken?
How are the citizens of Oklahoma represented by the OTA if the OTA’s funding is a direct violation of our state Constitution? This is an agency with it’s own revenue stream. The OTA has it’s own “purse” of purchased bonds. This is a destruction of the Rule of Law and a violation of property rights.
Expanding the turnpikes expands the monopoly of the OTA stakeholders. This is understandably confusing to the Oklahoma public, because it is so crooked. ACCESS Turnpike expansion is an abandonment of the roads and bridges we have, in the interests of financial gain for stakeholders and bondholders. The plans do not take into consideration the health of the people who will lose their property or the environmental impacts on wildlife and vegetation.
Moreover, turnpikes do not create economic growth. Look at the routes from OKC to Tulsa, from Chickasha to Lawton, or the Norman HE Bailey Spur. There are few businesses and even few gas stations. If you have lived in Oklahoma for long, you probably know that there is a span of the Turner Turnpike where you don’t want to be low on gas, because you will have nowhere to get it.
The expectedly disinterested Oklahoma press, which makes its revenue from Auto advertising, similar to the 10 o’clock news, has buried its head in the sand over this issue for far too long. We need reform. We need a certified highway cost allocation study. Our user cost recovery needs to be based on that study. We need an initiative petition to abolish the OTA. Everyone in the state needs to know about it.
It’s rather appropriate that the Turner Turnpike is 88 miles long. If you lay an 8 on it’s side it resembles an infinity sign. If we don’t reform, the debt in perpetuity of the original Turner Turnpike is to infinity and beyond. It is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error. Oklahoma’s citizens are failing that function.