Turnpikes switching to cashless charges


Toll plazas to go away within 5 years

  • Oklahoma Turnpike Authority

OKLAHOMA CITY – Coin collection toll booths will be removed from Oklahoma turnpikes over the next five years, starting this summer, state legislators were informed recently.

Cashless, “open road” tolling is safer and more convenient for motorists and Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) employees, state Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz told members of the House of Representatives’ Transportation Committee.

Turnpike toll plazas are “some of the highest accident locations on our network,” he said.

That’s because they present three opportunities for traffic collisions: when a driver exits the turnpike to enter the toll plaza, when a motorist stops at the toll booth, and “when you re-enter the mainline.”

And there’s a fourth. Last June a Jackson County Medical Services ambulance traveling from the Altus area to Oklahoma on the H.E. Bailey Turnpike plowed into the toll booth at Newcastle. Four people were injured: a patient, two paramedics, and the toll attendant, who “somehow survived the horrible accident,” Gatz recalled.

The Cimarron Turnpike has toll booths at the junctions of SH-99 and US-177 that he described as “awful”.

Open road tolling would “make conditions on the turnpikes much safer,” Gatz said.

Several other states already have transitioned to “all-electronic” tolling or are in the process of doing so, he said. Kansas is “moving in this direction” and Texas has just one remaining turnpike on which cash tolls are collected, he said.

“One of the biggest complaints from our patrons is that we still expect them to carry a pocketful of quarters,” Gatz said, adding that coin receptacles on Oklahoma’s turnpikes “have to be specially manufactured because nobody uses them anymore.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Oklahoma’s electronic PikePass, he noted.

Systemwide approximately 80% of the toll transactions are electronic, and on the urban turnpikes (such as the Creek and the Kilpatrick) use of the PikePass is above 90%, Gatz said.

The Turnpike Authority estimates that “roughly 40%” of the tolls collected on its system are generated from out-of-state motorists. As the OTA shifts to a cashless toll system, the agency must have a mechanism in place to collect tolls from motorists who don’t have PikePass transponders, Gatz said.

For a turnpike user who doesn’t have a PikePass, the license plate on his/her vehicle will be photographed automatically at toll plazas and the person to whom the vehicle is registered will be invoiced for the toll. The Turnpike Authority has employed this process in a pilot project on the Creek Turnpike for about five years “and we’ve had good success with it,” Gatz said.

Oklahoma has reciprocity agreements with many states that enable them to exchange motor vehicle registration information.

To install the cashless system “network-wide,” the Turnpike Authority “will have to have some support from the Legislature,” the Secretary said.

State Rep. Daniel Pae, R-Lawton, filed HB 1788 which, among other provisions, would make it unlawful to operate a vehicle on an Oklahoma turnpike if the registered owner has any outstanding toll evasion violations.

When the video toll collection system is implemented, any driver who doesn’t have a PikePass and travels on an Oklahoma turnpike will receive a bill and will have a 30-day grace period in which to pay it before it’s considered overdue, Pae said. If the bill is still not paid after several more weeks the vehicle owner will be flagged as a violator. Eventually a violator will be blocked from renewing the registration of that vehicle until the bill is paid.

Invariably some out-of-state drivers will ignore the turnpike bill, Gatz acknowledged. “We’ll look at the cost of collection versus the toll” and some charges will be write-offs. However, “This hasn’t been a big issue for us,” he said; most motorists are honest and pay their toll invoices immediately.

Oklahoma has 11 toll roads comprising 601 miles. The transition to total automation will take approximately five years to complete and will start this July on the Kilpatrick Turnpike in Oklahoma City, Pae said. The OTA’s 236 toll attendants will be retrained for other jobs, he said.

In contrast, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission opted last June to accelerate its plan to lay off nearly 500 toll workers and replace them with electronic tolling. Dismissals initially planned for 2022 instead went into effect immediately.

The Transportation Committee gave a nearly unanimous “do pass” recommendation to HB 1788 and referred it to the full House for a floor vote.

Sen. John Michael Montgomery, R-Lawton, is the Senate sponsor of the measure.