Saying he's seeking more information about a controversial turnpike program offered by Governor Frank Keating, a state legislator is formally requesting an interim legislative study of Oklahoma's toll road system and Keating's plans to expand it.
"I haven't gotten any answers from Governor Keating yet so I'm going to try to find the answers on my own," said Senator Bruce Price, the most vocal critic of Governor Keating's turnpike program. The Governor wants to build two new toll roads in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, financing the construction with a 10 percent toll hike statewide.
Senator Price has questioned the $525 million price tag of the project, the size of the proposed toll increase and the lack of public input on the plan. Governor Keating has yet to address the Hinton legislator's concerns, specifically his questions about whether Oklahomans will be given an opportunity to air their feelings about the project.
"Governor Keating is trying to double the turnpike authority's debt, basically put the state another half billion dollars in the red, without one word of opinion from you or me," said Senator Price. "I don't think that's right.
"I can guarantee that if the Governor talks to people from my area, folks from Chickasha or Anadarko, they'll tell him they don't want any new turnpikes and they sure don't want any more toll hikes. I suspect Governor Keating knows that, but he apparently doesn't want any adverse public opinion to derail his toll road plans."
The Keating toll road program was approved by the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority last month without any public input. If his interim study request is approved, Senator Price says he will give Oklahomans an opportunity to air their opinions on the issue. Other key questions his study would address include:
-Why does Governor Keating's program cost more than former Governor Walters' turnpike package when it builds less road? (According to the OTA, Keating's plan would cost $16.3 per turnpike mile, Walters cost $6.8 million. Keating's plan to extend the Kilpatrick turnpike in Oklahoma City would cost $20 million more than the same effort would have under Walters).
-Would a 10 percent toll increase be enough to finance the new turnpike construction or would a higher increase be more likely? (Gov. Walters had projected a larger increase to fund his program).
-What are the implications of doubling the OTA's current debt as proposed by Governor Keating? (OTA is currently $600 million in debt).
-Do the Kilpatrick and Turner Turnpikes currently carry similar traffic loads as claimed by Governor Keating? (According to Keating, they do. His toll increase projection is based on this claim).
-Why was no public input sought before the OTA approved the Keating program? (The program was approved one day after it was leaked to a newspaper).
"I just think Oklahomans deserve answers to those questions, whether they come from Governor Keating himself or from an interim study," said Senator Price.
The Hinton legislator promised that the interim committee meetings will be well advertised and open to the public, unlike the planning sessions on Governor Keating's turnpike program.
"Public input is crucial to this process, not just in the discussion of the Keating turnpikes, but in the administration of the entire toll road system. Oklahomans should get to have their say before the Governor tries to impose a back-door tax increase on them," said Senator Price.
Senator Price noted that requests for public input are routine on transportation issues, pointing to a recent press release from Transportation Secretary Neal McCaleb in which he solicited public comments on ODOT's three year construction plan. In McCaleb's words, "ODOT is better able to serve Oklahomans by receiving their input and knowing the interests of motorists, business and residents across the state."
"I think the OTA should be following that same policy, but it certainly didn't in the case of the Keating turnpikes. They were pushed through in the dark of night. I think an interim study would shine a little light on this deal and give Oklahomans an opportunity to see what their Governor is trying to sell them," said Senator Price.