Oklahoma Turnpike Authority faces questions over tolls and maintenance funds

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Oklahoma Turnpike Authority Executive Director Tim Gatz explained why toll rates are rising and maintenance funds are running out at Friday’s OTA meeting. (Screenshot by Janice Francis-Smith)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Turnpike Authority Executive Director Tim Gatz is increasingly facing questions from lawmakers and the public about how his agency spends its money.

Gatz and other agency heads set out to explain why toll rates are rising and maintenance funds are running low in recent meetings at the state Capitol.

Gatz told OTA board members Friday morning that he spoke with lawmakers during an interim study on the OTA earlier in the week.

“There was an enormous amount of what I would characterize as misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and outright error in some of the data that was presented,” Gatz said of the interim study. “This is something that we will have to continue to work on, to correct these events as far as possible.”

Lawmakers have questioned why a third of the agency’s spending is bond debt and how much of that total is interest payments.

OTA Deputy Director Joe Echelle said the interest rate on bond issues, which averages around 3%, is considerably lower than what the agency would lose due to rising prices. inflation rate if the OTA financed construction projects with savings. Bond issues allow the agency to act more quickly, Echelle said.

At Friday’s meeting, the OTA Board of Directors approved a two-year contract to spend $487,000 in a sponsorship deal with Sooner Sports Properties LLC, Cowboy Sports Properties LLC and Golden Hurricane Sports Properties LLC to marketing.

Randy Carter – who is also director of strategic communications for Pike Off OTA, an organization that opposes plans to expand the current toll road system – questioned the spending.

Carter asked the council to explain the benefit of spending nearly half a million dollars “on radio advertising”, and whether the council had any information on the expected return on investment for the expenditure.

“It’s really, I think, a very important thing that we do because we have so much to do and one of our very important missions is to make sure that we communicate as much as possible with the public so that they are well informed in advance of what they need to know,” said Dana Weber, member of the board of directors.

The agency is working to notify drivers about the implementation of the new cashless system, which also includes an app that allows drivers without PikePass to pay in another way.

The agency is moving forward with a project to convert all toll booths to cashless, with technology to read license plates for those without PikePass. The PikePass system is also being upgraded to be compatible with other states; already, the state has agreements that allow the PikePass to be used in Texas and Kansas.

Toll rates increase accordingly. Tolls on the Turner Turnpike will increase each year from $4.50 currently for a passenger vehicle to $5.25 in 2025, eventually reaching $9.40 in 2026.

“It has nothing to do with us trying to get more money,” Echelle told lawmakers. “It has everything to do with us the cost of raising that money. A stamp costs, I think, 58 cents and sometimes we have to mail three bills to get that payment.

Courier costs for OTA have increased from $3 million to $8 million over the past year as more toll collections are handled through the new system.

During Friday’s meeting, Carter also noted that the maintenance fund had been cut by almost 50%.

Gatz said the Turner Turnpike is 70 years old and the portion of the roadway below the surface needs to be reworked. The OTA is unique nationally in that “we have a general engineering consultant who represents the bondholders” and ensures the roads are well maintained.

“Our maintenance reserve is reduced as our network improves,” Gatz said.

OTA board members were told that toll revenues have increased this year by 4.3%, while operating expenses remain 10.6% below budget.

Lawmakers were told that 40% of revenue collected on toll roads comes from out-of-state motorists, a total of $135 million in 2021, with 38% of revenue coming from commercial carriers.

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