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LARGENT says toll booths show state is not growing

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Republican gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Steve Largent says toll booths on Oklahoma's turnpikes are a visual reminder that Oklahoma is not growing as a state.

``If our economy was robust and we were creating the jobs in this state that we need to have, we wouldn't need toll booths on our highways,'' Largent said.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Gary Richardson, a former Republican, has said he will abolish tolls on the popular Turner Turnpike if elected.

Largent characterized the pledge as a ``populist idea.'' Former Lt. Gov. Jack Mildren, a Democrat who is considering a run for governor, said that philosophically, removing tolls from the Turner Turnpike would be ``a wonderful thing to do.''

But Largent and Mildren said they are unwilling to completely embrace the idea until questions about its impact are answered. Largent said he will meet with state transportation officials next month to discuss the issue.

``It would be something I would support as long as we can continue to meet the obligations that we already have'' to provide transportation needs, Largent said.

Largent said he believes that obligations made to other turnpikes are being met with toll revenues from the Turner Turnpike, which connects Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Mildren said he believes transportation is key to Oklahoma's future and he wants to study what affect that eliminating the turnpike's toll would have.

Mildren said that like most Oklahomans he does not like to pay taxes. But some revenue source will have to be in place if revenue from the Turner Turnpike is eliminated and the state's major turnpike debt is still outstanding.

The Turner Turnpike has generated enough money to pay off its bond debt but its revenue is used to help pay for maintenance and pay off bonded indebtedness on the state's other turnpikes, Transportation Department spokesman Justin Magee said.

Oklahoma has 12 turnpikes, including extensions, and the Turner is the state's biggest revenue producer, Magee said.

The $1.3 billion bond debt on Oklahoma's turnpikes is scheduled to be paid off in 2028 unless it is refinanced with more obligations added.

A statewide poll earlier this year showed strong voter support for doing away with all of the state's turnpikes.

Richardson said tolls on the Turner Turnpike create an artificial barrier between the state's two largest cities.

When the turnpike was completed in 1953, voters were promised that within a few years it would become a free road, he said.

``The tolls were temporary, we were told,'' Richardson said. ``I don't know about you, but I don't think 48 years is temporary.''
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