Early on planners decided against financing any intercontinental highway system with tolls. Even though President Eisenhower, mistakenly considered by many as the father of the interstate system, preferred toll-financing, it was rejected decades before because about 85% of travel was within cities not between states where toll roads worked well. Nevertheless, over the years 2900 miles of toll roads have been incorporated into the 46,730 miles interstate system.
There, farms were not separated by public roads but abutted one another—separated by rock fences and private lanes. To cross a neighbor’s property, a traveler went through a gate or over a stile. Then, some rural folk had to cross their neighbor’s property to get to town or church.
Some land owners placed toll booths at entrances to their property and placed guards there holding pike poles. After the toll was paid, the guard would “turn his pike” permitting the traveler to proceed.
Oklahoma Turnpike System
In a series of votes in 1947, the Oklahoma legislature and voters authorized construction of four turnpikes. The following year they approved the pooling of turnpike revenues—thus uncoupling the revenues and costs of specific turnpikes. This had three consequences.
First, after a turnpike’s bonds are paid off, they keep on charging tolls to use it.
My late friend Milt Phillips, publisher of the Seminole Producer and Chairman of the OTA in its early days, told me the system was planned with a sunset clause they later dropped. Currently, their bonded indebtedness is $1billion and will not paid off until 2031. [Oklahoman Sept.23, 2012]
Secondly, pooled funds generate surpluses from profitable turnpikes to build unprofitable turnpikes. The first bill creating the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority [OTA] was for the purpose of building only the 88-mile Turner Turnpike. The Turner generated 25% of OTA’s revenues but uses only 5% of those funds for its own maintenance leaving the other 20% to help pay for the other 9 they have built subsequently.
The best example of this nonsense is the 13.7 mile Chickasaw Turnpike southwest from Fitzhugh to where it intersects highway 7. [Be honest: can you locate this turkey?] Last year it generated $800,000 in tolls—a magnificent return of 1.8% on its $39 million cost. Pontotoc County must have had some kind of political power when it was approved .!
Early on planners were in fair agreement on routes between states because they disturbed relatively few assets compared with routes through towns that destroyed huge chunks of assets.
This was especially true of bypasses around towns that in those days would have involved taking relatively inexpensive rural land while bypassing, and thus destroying valuable land inside of cities. This proposed redistribution of wealth mobilized political allies of the potential losers.
Page 2 of 2 - When I was appraising land for the proposed interstates through Oklahoma in 1958-9, the OHD wanted to route the end of the Turner Turnpike around the far north side OKC then back south to intersect with I-40 in the vicinity of Yukon. It would have bypassed all those motels from Frontier City to the Cowboy Hall of Fame and taken mostly pasture land where I used to hunt. The decision was made politically to delay that bypass and 40 years later build it as the John Kilpatrick Turnpike at ten times the cost through the most highly-developed, expensive zip codes in the State [think Quail Creek].
The average toll on Oklahoma turnpikes if 5.2 cents per mile.
This translates to a tax of $1 per gallon of gas the automobile uses on the turnpike. The father of the American highway system, Thomas Harris MacDonald, opposed toll roads because he believed roads were a birthright akin to free public schooling. Motorists already paid licensing fees and taxes on gasoline and tires, and to slap them with a toll amounted to a double tax.*
It was also a regressive tax on those least able to pay for it. In 2012 the Kilpatrick took in only $24 million in tolls to pay for its $400 million cost. This transfer of wealth brings new meaning to “the taking.” [Cards-N-Time, Nov. 10, 2013]
• Earl Swift, “The Big Roads,” Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2011, p.135.