Gary Richardson, a private practice attorney from Tulsa, decided that enough was enough when it came to the turnpike authority. This year, he and his researchers spent hours and hours digging through dusty state documents in search of a study of the Oklahoma turnpikes. The study was commissioned in 1995, but it was never widely publicized – because it called for the elimination of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
But they found it. And it confirms what many have long suspected.
The study was conducted by the Governor’s Performance Team in 1995, and it is available on Gary Richardson’s campaign website. It discusses the deterioration of Oklahoma roads and how to make Oklahoma’s system of transportation more efficient.
The study pointed out that Oklahoma has a 4:1 ratio of road construction to road maintenance expenditures. In other words, Oklahoma spends more money building new roads than it does maintaining old ones. The committee of researchers recommended changing this, which makes sense: Why build new roads when we can’t take care of the ones we already have?
When it came down to how Oklahoma utilizes resources, the committee found that the state agencies which oversee transportation do not work together; even though they share certain goals, they work independently of one another, thereby impeding progress – and making the state pay for the same thing twice, in a sense.
It was determined by the team that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the OTA were almost duplicate organizations; the study recommended that the turnpikes be sold. This is probably one of the wisest moves the study suggested: Selling the turnpikes and making them into free roads would facilitate economic growth and make Oklahoma more competitive in a global economy. (Taxes and tolls harm economic growth. Eliminate them and watch the economy grow.)
It then directly called upon the Legislature to abolish the turnpike authority, saying the abolishment could be implemented quickly and that “legislative action is required.”
The team found that the OTA “prohibits direct accountability,” and that the OTA does not promote “operational and management efficiency.” The study also hammered home on the fact that the building of turnpikes has cost the State of Oklahoma money, even though the turnpike authority is supposed to pay for turnpikes and access roads entirely. When a new turnpike is built, the OTA is obligated per state statute to pay for all access roads and bridges going to it. But the ODOT was often left holding the bag – at the cost of millions of dollars.
This study gives us a pretty clear glimpse into the waste that lives within our state government. But it does leave some questions unanswered. We can see that the turnpike authority is wasteful, but where exactly does that waste go?
Nobody seems to know.
Citizens and researchers have been unable to figure out just who holds the turnpike bonds. But despite the large quantity of press coverage over the issuance of the bonds, when it came to the bondholders, there was an overabundance of silence.
Many have surmised that we don’t hear about the bondholders because they aren’t from here – and by “here,” I mean in the United States. Popular opinion is that that foreign banks and investors are running the show at the OTA. Keep in mind, Oklahoma does not profit from the OTA: Only the bondholders do. The State of Oklahoma does not receive any money from the OTA. This means that the money spent on the turnpikes isn’t even returned to our local economies: It’s going to some other country.
Shockingly, even though the OTA is financed through bondholders, it receives a $47,000,000 appropriation from the state government annually. But where is that going? If bondholders are paying for the turnpikes, why is the state pouring tens of millions into it?
Again, nobody seems to know.
Could it be embezzlement or mismanagement? One turnpike authority employee was convicted of embezzlement earlier this year. But most notably, Albert C. Kelly, a former Tulsa banker, previous chairman of the OTA, and current EPA official, was banned from the banking industry in September and heavily fined for “willfully violating regulations” and engaging in “unsafe and unsound banking practices that harmed the bank,” according to an article by “American Banker.” The FDIC found that he was unfit to serve as a director.
He was unfit to serve as a director of a bank - but he was the chairman of the OTA, which is worth millions. He was banned from banking because he engaged in unsafe, harmful practices. Could his practices have carried over into the OTA?
While nobody knows for sure, many believe they have.
One might ask, “Well, hasn’t the turnpike authority been audited?”
The answer: No. At least, not externally.
Since the agency was established in 1947, it has never been externally audited. It’s been internally audited – meaning that it has only been audited by itself and other state agencies. And, as if by magic, it doesn’t find that is has done anything wrong. Kind of like the stubborn little kid who steals the cookie from the cookie jar: He refuses to admit that he did it, and he tries to act like he didn’t. (But, in that case, Mama and Papa always find out.)
Richardson is digging deep into the turnpike mess, and he is right to do so. We need clarity, and we need transparency. Going 70 years without being externally audited is unacceptable. And it certainly casts a bad light upon the OTA, and upon the past governors who have neglected to audit the agency; professionals agree that it should have been eliminated years ago. Even if there isn’t as much fraud and waste as many may think there is, the OTA has to understand that it has fueled the allegations. Richardson has vowed to audit and shut down the OTA if elected, and that’s exactly what we need: accountability and reform.
Opinion of the Editor
We recently moved our blog. Our archives are still partially stored at our old site.
David Van Risseghem is the Director of Sooner Politics.org. The resource is committed to informing & mobilizing conservative Oklahomans for civic reform. This endeavor seeks to utilize the efforts of all cooperative facets of the Conservative movement...