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August 17, 1995

Earlier this summer I reported in one of these columns about a remark made by an unidentified Texas woman who was seated in a booth next to ours at a truck stop near Amarillo. She was loudly complaining that she had just paid $8.50 on Oklahoma toll roads and that our turnpike service facilities were nil. She really said that. I'm not making any of this up.

In the column, I also commented that the rest stops along out state's highways are widely criticized by Oklahoma motorists as well as visitors because they are (A) extremely scarce and (B) pretty much inadequate. You've all heard similar remarks.

I also asked, rhetorically, if all of the turnpike fees are needed to retire the bonds, or could just a small amount be used to improve our information centers? I have received a response to that plaintive query and I want to share some of that with you.

The information is supplied by Mary Kay Audd, public information officer for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, 3500 Martin Luther King Avenue, Oklahoma City, OK 731360357. Let me quote part of her letter:

"The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation are partnering their resources and finances to replace the Welcome Center located just a few miles inside the Oklahoma/Missouri border on the Will Rogers Turnpike. This center will provide tourism information and public rest room facilities. Phillips 66 continues its fueling station, mini mart and public rest rooms operations at this same location as it has for many years.

"OTA is also partnering with Tourism to build brand new Welcome Centers on the Cherokee Turnpike and the H.E. Bailey Turnpike for visitors coming into our state from Arkansas and Texas, respectively. Again, the turnpike Welcome Centers will be located in full service concession areas already in existence. The price to construct these new Welcome Centers? Approximately $750,000 each. That does not include the annual cost for full time personnel, utilities, supplies, maintenance or grounds keeping. Tourism is building other centers across Oklahoma.

"The Turnpike Authority contracts with its concessionaires such as Phillips 66, EZGo Foods and McDonald's to provide free, public rest room facilities rather than spend millions of dollars to build, maintain, supply, operate and protect facilities in separate locations. Public facilities provided by the concessionaires are far safer than isolated facilities because they are very well lit and draw in great numbers of the traveling public. Many of these concessionaires provide additional services such as RV dumps, electronic banking, pay phones and gift shops.

"In 1995 the estimated revenue total for the OTA is $117,753,000; $51,669,000 of that total is used to repay the private investors who buy Oklahoma turnpike bonds; $34,260,000 is allocated for daily turnpike operating and maintenance expenses....; $17,176,000 will be used for reserve maintenance projects such as resurfacing, unusual or extraordinary repairs or maintenance and other major projects. The balance, $14,648,000, goes to the OTA's General Fund which pays for a wide range of projects that vary from year to year as necessary. Some of the projects for 1995 include partial funding of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol training academy, aerial photography of the turnpikes, electronic imaging of OTA records, upgrades to the Pikepass system and critical turnpike repairs."

That was the gist of Ms. Audd's letter and I appreciate her taking the time to supply that information. Unfortunately, the Texas lady who was noisily bad-mouthing our turnpikes probably will never read any of this, because I don't know her name.

There was no intent in this column to suggest that Oklahoma highway or toll road funds were being wrongfully used, but I do stand by my observation that the rest stops on our free roads do not measure up to those found in any of our neighboring states. That is obvious to anyone who travels even a little bit.