The first rule of the Turnpike Mafia is we don’t talk about the Turnpike Mafia. Have questions about the proposed $5 billion Access Oklahoma expansion plans? Representatives from the Turnpike Authority will talk to you earnestly about traffic and gridlock. Still have doubts? They will change the subject to “safety.” Who could be against safety?
At the end of the day, these are just flimsy excuses to build new turnpikes. Why? Because in Oklahoma turnpikes have become the perfect public-private partnership in crime. Remember Epic Charter schools? The Turnpike Mafia does roadways the way Epic did education, but with one important difference: OTA is not funded with pilfered state tax dollars. Instead, they borrow from banks and repay the loans with toll revenues. Tolls are about to go up in price; A lot.
Why? Just because they can, no other reason is needed. The state legislature puts no limits on OTA’s ability to borrow money so the Agency has engaged in an orgy of debt financing over the past two decades. Their debt service payment schedule is published in their annual financial report (you can see it here: https://www.sai.ok.gov/olps/uploads/ota_acfr_ah8t.pdf).
Even if they never borrow another penny, the OTA will repay over three billion in principal, interest and fees between now and 2048. That is to say YOU and I will pay over three billion in principal, interest and fees. A toll is a driving tax, and the state legislature puts no limits on OTA’s toll rate increases. More Turnpike Authority debt equals higher toll rates. New toll roads mean fewer free roads.
Did I mention that Oklahoma already has more miles of toll roads per population than any other state in the US? Take a look at the long-range plans detailed in the OTA’s annual financial report: https://www.sai.ok.gov/olps/uploads/ota_acfr_ah8t.pdf. They are planning to fully encircle Oklahoma City and Tulsa with outer loops, making it potentially quite expensive to enter or leave Oklahoma’s two major cities.
Don’t like the proliferation of toll roads and toll increases? Too bad. It’s not about you or what you want. It’s about the Turnpike Mafia getting new loans to build new roads and all those lucrative sweet construction contracts, inflated invoices and kickbacks that come as an added bonus to a five billion highway plan with no legislative oversight and no mandated performance audits.
Paving contractors love the Turnpike Mafia, as do highway engineering firms. If you don’t believe me take a look at the guest list from the February 22 OTA launch party for the Access Oklahoma project. It’s published at the end of the meeting minutes (available here: https://www.pikepass.com/about/AuthorityMeeting.aspx ). Out of a hundred or so attendees, there were at least a dozen highway engineers, a crew of bankers, design firms, bridge construction specialists, consultants and lobbyists. This is the Turnpike Mafia’s clientele for the Access Oklahoma projects. Do you know who wasn’t invited? Traffic safety activists. Building Tolls is about money, not about safety, or easing traffic.
Guess who else loves the Turnpike Mafia? Banks. A billion dollars in new loans generate a minimum of one percent in fees for the lenders. That’s ten million dollars in fees for every billion in new debt. Now add interest payments (and remember interest rates are going up). Now multiply by five. That is the total pool of money at play in the Access Oklahoma turnpike projects.
Do you think some of this vast ocean of cash might find its way into the hands of state government officials in the form of campaign contributions or gifts? Remember these are the same officials who fought hard against any oversight of Epic Charter Schools right up until the criminal indictments dropped a few months ago. Swadley’s Barbecue, anyone? ClassWallet? Could lucrative real estate deals somehow be involved in the Turnpike plans?
Stay tuned, readers. Your correspondent is on the job.
Raul Godoy is the pseudonym of a local activist who hates greedy turnpike authorities. He encourages you to visit PikeOffOTA.com. You can follow him on Twitter @MafiaTurnpike.
(Writing by Raul Godoy; Editing by Robbie Robertson)
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