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Michael Overall: 'With tolls for the rest of our lives,' Oklahoma turnpikes keep a debate raging for 75 years

Michael Overall: 'With tolls for the rest of our lives,' Oklahoma turnpikes keep a debate raging for 75 years

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Turner Turnpike 1953

Oklahoma’s 88-mile Turner Turnpike opened in 1953, the same year Tulsa opened the first stretch of the Skelly Bypass, which would eventually connect the Turner with the Will Rogers Turnpike and the rest of what is now known as Interstate 44.

Several local business leaders, including the publisher of the Tulsa World, traveled to Oklahoma City for a meeting with the governor on Feb. 21, 1947, when the trip would have taken about three hours on old Route 66, based on average highway speeds at the time.

That’s what they wanted to complain to the governor about.

The federal government had been planning to widen Route 66 to help facilitate troop movements from coast-to-coast. But with the end of World War II, the project had been shelved.

The Tulsa businessmen, joined by counterparts from Oklahoma City, told Gov. Roy Turner that even if the military didn’t need the superhighway anymore, the state certainly did.

They pitched a plan to finance the construction with bonds and repay the debt by collecting tolls. In other words: a turnpike.

The governor jumped aboard, arguing that faster, more convenient transportation would spark economic development. And if the state waited until it could afford to build a free highway, it might be waiting forever.

The idea, nonetheless, faced significant opposition in the Legislature. While the initial plan was to make highway free once the construction had been paid for, Chandler Sen. Boyd Cowden predicted that “Oklahomans will be shackled with tolls for the rest of their lives.”

Proponents countered with a feasibility study that said the turnpike would make $1.83 million in just the first year. That estimate, however, was way off. Opened in May 1953, the Turner Turnpike actually collected $2.21 million its first year. And it has continued to exceed expectations pretty much ever since.

Revenue wasn’t expected to reach $3 million a year before the 1980s, but actually hit that mark before the end of the 1950s.

Naturally, the phenomenal success encouraged the state to build more toll roads. The Will Rogers Turnpike from Tulsa to the Missouri state line opened in 1957, followed by the H.E. Bailey Turnpike from Oklahoma City toward Wichita Falls in 1964, with the caveat that none of them would stop collecting tolls until all of them had been paid for.

Now, the state has 12 turnpikes covering 630 miles. And the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is considering long-term plans for more construction, including additional lanes for the Turner and improvements to the Will Rogers, according to reports last week.

Legislators say they want to see details before committing to more bond issues. And it will inevitably continue the same old debate that started nearly 75 years ago and has never really stopped.

On the one hand, Oklahoma needs highway improvements to encourage economic development and can’t wait forever for free highways to be funded.

On the other hand, “Oklahomans will be shackled with tolls for the rest of their lives.”



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