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“All smoke and mirrors,” Decades old vote prevents Oklahoma turnpikes from ever being paid off

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OKLAHOMA COUNTY, Okla. - The opposition has been loud and persistent.

Many folks in rural eastern Oklahoma County don’t want the new turnpike cutting through their land.

Anti-turnpike signs dot the peaceful landscape.

“I’m going to fight until the last breath, until they’re pushing dirt. I will be fighting this thing. I’m telling you right now. On my tombstone it will say, 'Stop the turnpike,'” said Paul Crouch, who will see the new turnpike from his front yard.

And the outcry is nothing new.

A newspaper headline from December 29, 1947 declares “Anti-Turnpike Group Formed.”

That group fought to keep the first turnpike, the Turner, from ever being built.

“People were very skeptical about the fact of bringing a turnpike, a tollway into the state,” said Barbara VanHanken.

VanHanken remembers her father, a traveling salesman, not believing the promises that were made at the time.

“As I understand it, it was developed and sold to the public as, you know, the tolls will pay off the cost of construction and maintenance and then the road will be free again,” said VanHanken.

Another article about the proposed turnpike, dated February 23, 1947, says, “Engineers estimated traffic would pay for the highway in less than 21 years, ending the toll system.”

So why didn’t that happen?

“The drumbeat goes on. You know they broke their promise. Well, there wasn’t really a promise ever made and if it was broken, it was broken by the voters themselves,” said David Averill, former Tulsa World editor.

Averill explored the topic in a 1993 editorial titled “The Turnpike Myth That Never Dies.”

Two state questions on the ballot in 1954 allowed for cross funding; profits from the Turner Turnpike could be used to build three more turnpikes.

The controversial issue ended up passing by 40,000 votes.

“If there ever had been a 'free road' promise, that went away when the voters themselves approved two state questions,” said Averill.

“Without fully informing the people, they had the people to vote to not do that. Oh, how about we use the money off the Turner to build another turnpike? And it’s been going on ever since,” said Gary Richardson.

Richardson ran for governor of Oklahoma in 2002.

One of his major platforms was getting rid of the turnpikes and he still appears at anti-turnpike rallies today.

“That’s why it’s such a scam because the people haven’t been truthfully informed. We don’t make a cent off the turnpike,” said Richardson.

So who does profit off the turnpikes?

That would be the bondholders - investors who purchase the bonds sold to finance the roads.

“What kind of money these bond holders make, number one. Number two, who are the bondholders?” asked Richardson.

“They’re sold on the open market and they change every day. It’s just like who owns the stock in IBM? Only the registered agents really know,” said interim executive director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, Neal McCaleb.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is the agency set up to construct, operate and maintain the turnpikes.

He says Oklahoma’s turnpike bonds are solid investments.

“They earn interest and that’s an attractive investment because the interest that they earn is tax free, both on the state income taxes and the federal income taxes,” said McCaleb.

And no state money has to go for the construction of these roads.

“It’s money. It really has to do with money,” said the Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley.

Ridley says the Department of Transportation simply does not have the money to build these roads.

And he says the two currently proposed ones, on the east and west sides of the metro, are badly needed.

“Major increase in accidents over the last 10 years. It’s continuing to grow and will grow. With the report that ACOG’s put out that the metropolitan area’s going to grow by another 30, 35% in the next 25 years,” said Ridley.

Rep. Lewis Moore recently called for a study before building more turnpikes.

“Take the turnpike authority and put it under ODOT,” said Moore.

He says we already collect enough money from state motor fuel and motor vehicle collections to fund new roads.

The problem is that more than $500 million of that is funneled elsewhere to places like education and the general revenue fund.

He favors using a debt snowball system to pay off and phase out the turnpikes.

“Pay the smaller ones off and then you can then phase out the Turner Turnpike and Will Rogers, which are the main money makers,” said Moore.

“I definitely wouldn’t have voted for cross funding. I know cross funding now. It’s a shell game with money. All smoke and mirrors,” said Crouch.

Opponents of the turnpike don’t care about a decades old vote and  they say it doesn’t change their fight against the turnpike system.

While they have never been audited by the state, officials with the Turnpike Authority say they are independently audited.