The toll booths on Oklahoma’s turnpikes are coming down, but the road isn’t free.
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is adopting an all-electronic toll collection system starting this summer.
Legislation to authorize collections on the new system are pending before the Oklahoma Legislature.
It will mean very little change for drivers who use the PikePass system, which allows them to pay their fare while barely slowing down and at a discounted price. About 80% of Oklahoma turnpike drivers take advantage of that system.
OTA cameras will will capture the license tags numbers of other drivers and bill the vehicle’s owner.
That’s a system that has worked well in Texas for years. It will save OTA money in the long run, which should mean less pressure for higher turnpike tolls.
The new system is safer, more fuel-efficient, less polluting and more convenient.
Turnpikes are an irritating fact of life in Oklahoma in general, and they have a virtual stranglehold over Tulsa commerce in particular.
But they aren’t going away anytime soon or, frankly, ever.
Some people will never accept this, but they’re the fairest way to finance the construction of needed highways — a straightforward user fee.
As former OTA Board member John Kilpatrick was fond of saying, there is no such thing as a free road. You either pay for your highway with tolls or your pay for it with taxes. Paying with tolls means the heaviest users pay the most and the nonusers don’t pay at all. That’s the model of fairness, as voters accepted when they affirmed the OTA’s mission in 1954.
The new collection system has some obvious problems. For one, the car owner is being held responsible for tolls, even if someone else is driving the vehicle. The OTA customer service people will work with people who can prove they aren’t responsible for tolls — such as tolls that are run up after a car’s sale — but the bottom line is that if you own the car, you’re going to held responsible for the tolls.
Also, the system opens the door for toll scofflaws who fly through the state one time and ignore the bill when it comes. That may costs the OTA a little money and the drivers a lot of money if they ever happen through the state again.
Neither of those problems lead us to the conclusion that no-cash toll system isn’t a step forward for the turnpike system. If the roads are never going to be toll-free, at least we don’t have to wait for the privilege of paying.
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