Ask Fox: Was the turnpike supposed to be free after the initial debt was paid off?

A plaque commemorates the opening of the Turner Turnpike in 1953. It now sits in the mid-road restaurant and re-fueling plaza. (Keaton Fox/KOKH)

After our last turnpike question, a viewer on Facebook reminded us of a question we get a lot: "Was the turnpike supposed to be free after the initial debt was paid off?"

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: that changed in 1954 and has been pushed back in perpetuity.

Here's the way it works: the original plan was to pay off the Turner Turnpike (the Governor demanded it before signing any legislation, as quoted in The Oklahoman in 1947). But in 1954, a plan for "cross-pledging" or allowing the turnpikes to pay for each other passed.

So, if new work is approved on an existing or new turnpike, all the turnpikes continue to cost until that debt is retired.

And the cycle continues forever, until all the debt is paid off. (Which is at least another 40 years)

If voters had voted it down, the debt would've been retired in 1991, according to the OTA.

Toll road history in Oklahoma

Oklahoma has a long history debating the idea of toll roads and has had some kind of toll-based transportation since statehood.

The first mention in area papers about a toll road mirroring today's turnpikes goes all the way back to 1911 when leaders wanted to build a toll road from Afton, Okla. to Arkansas. (Afton currently is quite close to the Will Rogers Turnpike today.)

An effort in 1931 to build a toll road up Mount Scott near Lawton was also widely publicized. The original plan, as reported at the time, included a toll road to the top of the mountain that would lead to a luxury resort and hotel.

While people in the are were looking for a road to the mount, the idea of a toll road was wildly unpopular at the time, especially given the developers would be from out-of-town and the project not managed by Oklahoma.

The issue was national, as permission was sought from the U.S. Forest Service, which was a national forest at the time.

The plan was eventually defeated and a free road plan began in 1934.

About a decade later, the idea of an Oklahoma toll road really took off. Pennsylvania had one, but no one else west of the Mississippi.

Early measures in the 1940's to create a turnpike authority in the spirit of Pennsylvania's failed until 1947, when finally Governor Turner (of the now named turnpike) agreed on a few conditions: the corporation commission would set the tolls and no state funds would be used until the project was paid for and then free after then.

"The governor is opposed to toll roads in principle but is convinced Oklahoma will never have enough tax revenue to build a modern highway system," reported The Oklahoman at the time.

The legislation passed and planning began.

Turner Turnpike opened in May 1953.

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