LAWMAKERS to again examine toll-free roads

Wednesday, August 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ State lawmakers are again looking at ways to make the state's toll roads free.

On Tuesday, a House subcommittee took up an interim study examining the issue.

Reps. Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, and Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, sought the study. Benge said he wanted to examine the system because many people in his district feel they have no control over the construction of turnpikes.

``Turnpikes are like the Eveready Bunny,'' he said. ``They are going to keep going and going and going unless we do something to stop them.''

Benge said he plans to pursue legislation to stop the construction of new toll roads. He also said he would like to end the cross-pledging of toll revenue to help build new toll roads.

The Oklahoma Transportation Authority oversees 612 miles of toll roads across the state, said Holly Lowe, the agency's acting director and chief financial officer.

Lowe said there's no such thing as a free road, considering road construction and maintenance must be supported either by tax revenues or toll fees.

The authority has an outstanding debt of $1.3 billion as a result of an expansion that was approved in 1998, Lowe said. That debt won't be retired until 2028.

Once the debt has been paid, the roads could become toll-free, Lowe said. She said the system hasn't become debt-free because it has been continually expanded.

Lowe said if the Oklahoma Department of Transportation were to take on the maintenance of current toll-roads, it would cost the state $60 million annually.

Toll revenue also pays for the training and salary of 130 Highway Patrol troopers. If the roads were to become toll-free, the state would have to pick up the $10 million bill for the troopers, she said.

Lowe said if the state gave more revenue from the motor fuel tax to ODOT, there would be less need to build more toll roads. She said 23.8 percent of the motor fuel tax revenue collected in Oklahoma is diverted for nonhighway programs.

The Legislature must authorize any new toll road. Lawmakers have authorized the OTA to examine the feasibility of about 30 proposed toll roads.