By Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team
TULSA, Oklahoma – The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority said they were forced to raise tolls last year because of a $21 million dollar shortfall. This year they're spending the money from that toll hike, but there is one project many drivers are unhappy about.
For thousands of Oklahomans, the turnpikes are a speedy alternative to Oklahoma's smaller highways, and worth every penny paid in tolls.
"I like it. I mean it's easy. It's fast and it gets me from work and home quicker," said driver Shane Wharton.
But for others, the turnpikes represent an unfair type of taxation.
"Our state welcome signs need to be changed to: 'Welcome To Oklahoma-Get Your Wallet Out For The Tollbooth And Prepare For Construction Delays," said a viewer.
"My friends in Dallas make fun of our state because we charge tolls but have the worst roads in the US," said another viewer.
An article in Readers Digest names the Will Rogers Turnpike as one of the top seven worst roads in America.
"So we've got 57 year old bridges out there that need work on them and we've got 57 year old pavement that needs rehabilitation and unfortunately the customers have been noticing that here a lot lately," said Tim Stewart, the Deputy Director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
The turnpike authority said the recession and lack of toll money caused them to fall behind on everything, including maintenance. That's why the board voted to raise tolls last year by an average of 15 percent statewide.
This year they're spending that money with construction projects on every toll road.
"We're thankful for that. Even though it's an inconvenience, we finally have money that we can reinvest into those systems," said Stewart.
The Oklahoma Impact Team took a look at the authority's latest capitol plan which is a roadmap for the expenditure of $287 million over the next five years. While $62 million will go toward rehabilitating or replacing 19 of the authority's 798 bridges, only a fraction of the projects in this plan are actual pavement and bridge rehab projects.
The turnpike authority will also spend $20 million dollars redeveloping five service plazas, including one on the H.E. Bailey Turnpike in Chickasha and a plaza on the Muskogee Turnpike. The turnpike authority is paying to redevelop the sites including pavement, utilities and lighting. The owners of the gas stations and McDonalds will pay for the actual buildings, except the glass house McDonalds over the Will Rogers Turnpike.
"We seriously considered internally, tearing it down, and trying to build something that's more modern," Stewart said.
Instead, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is spending $10.5 million to completely redevelop the building. According to Stewart, it's cheaper than building something new and he thinks this project will set a better tone for out of state drivers using the turnpikes.
"That'll be the first structure they really see and when they stop I want them to stop and see our pride in Oklahoma and our pride in what this state means to us and what we can offer its travelers," said the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's Deputy Director.
But spending that kind of money on a McDonalds doesn't sit well with some of the toll-payers who are paying for the building.
"I mean I think I'd rather see that money go toward the roads," Wharton said.
The turnpike authority is also spending about $13 million upgrading to the new PIKEPASS sticker tag system and about $5 million on new highway patrol cars and equipment.