OKLAHOMA CITY -Saying the Keating administration isn't telling the whole story about a pending toll road expansion and rate hike program, a state legislator is challenging a lengthy statement issued by the Governor's office yesterday and requesting a firm commitment for public hearings on the issue. Senator Price also made a formal request for information documenting funding needs, projected toll increases and current turnpike traffic counts today.
"I'm glad Governor Keating responded to my concerns, but his statement didn't address the many questions Oklahomans are asking about the turnpike program," said Senator Bruce Price, pointing out the Governor declined to say whether he supports or opposes public hearings on the controversial toll road plan.
"I think public input is crucial to this process, but so far, the average Oklahoman hasn't been given an opportunity to voice an opinion on Governor Keating's new turnpikes or his proposed toll increases. Once people get wind of the fact that they're going to be digging into their pockets to pay for the Governor's new toll roads, they'll be plenty upset."
In defending Keating's plan to raise tolls statewide to finance new turnpikes in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the Governor's Transportation Secretary has claimed there was no secrecy surrounding the controversial program, asserting at one point that the plan has been in the works for a year and a half.
Senator Price disagrees however, pointing to a statement issued by the Governor's office on December 13, 1995. It read:
"Senator Easley is terribly mistaken when he refers to any sort of toll road construction program of the Governor's. We have no toll road program to present to the Legislative Bond Oversight Commission and we have no idea what he is referring to." (Governor Keating's Communications Director Dan Mahoney)
"Just six months ago, Governor Keating was telling Oklahomans he didn't have any plans to build turnpikes. Now he's unveiled a half-billion dollar construction program, complete with a statewide toll hike, telling everyone this has been on the drawing board for a year and a half.
"Those statements just don't jibe. No matter what face Governor Keating tries to put on it, this has been a behind-closed-doors process with no public input, and I think that's wrong," said Senator Price.
The lawmaker also pointed out that the Governor didn't mention his toll road program during the lengthy discussions on transportation needs during the legislative session. The turnpike plan and the proposed toll increase didn't become public knowledge until the day before the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority met to approve the proposal.
A similar turnpike program offered by former Governor David Walters underwent lengthy public scrutiny and was ultimately derailed.
"Governor Keating's toll road program costs about the same as the one submitted by David Walters, but it builds a lot less turnpike. I'm going to be looking into that too," said Senator Price, noting the Walters plan included pikes in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and rural Oklahoma.
Today, the Senator formally requested information on turnpike traffic counts, toll increase projections and related funding issues.
"I want to see some of those hard statistics showing that the Turner and the Kilpatrick turnpikes carry similar traffic loads," said Senator Price, referring to the Governor's claims that the two toll roads carry 24,000 and 20,000 vehicles a day respectively.
"If that claim is true, then there's no reason to raise tolls statewide. The turnpikes in Oklahoma City and Tulsa should be able to support themselves. Rural Oklahomans shouldn't be paying for urban toll roads."
Governor Keating wants to raise tolls by at least 10 percent statewide to pay for turnpike extensions in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The program would add $525 million to its existing turnpike debt of $665 million.
"I'm not going to add another half-billion dollars to the state debt, basically double the OTA's debt, without asking some questions first, and I think the people should be able to ask questions too. All I'm asking is that this process be conducted in the open for everyone to see.
"I agree with Governor Keating's campaign pledge. No turnpike should be built unless it can pay for itself. Even by the Governor's admission, these toll roads will not pay for themselves," concluded Senator Price.