For years, the city of Tulsa has been spending $7.5 million a year to build the Gilcrease Expressway.
It’s taken a loooooong time, and the project is decades from being completed.
So one would expect that Thursday’s announcement that the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is offering to spend $28 million to help build a 2.5-mile stretch of the roadway from Edison Street to 21st Street would be universally applauded.
Here are some of the problems with the proposal, according to officials familiar with the offer:
- The city estimates the project will cost approximately $100 million, meaning Tulsa would be on the hook for the remaining $72 million or so.
- Of the six projects announced by the Turnpike Authority, Tulsa is the only city being asked to contribute funds to a project.
- The Turnpike Authority will maintain and operate the other five roadway projects announced Thursday but will not maintain and operate the 2.5-mile stretch of the Gilcrease once it is completed. That will be the city’s job, even as Tulsans pay the Turnpike Authority a toll to use it.
- The Turnpike Authority announced $892 million in projects Thursday, but only two projects – the Gilcrease and the reconstruction of 9.5 miles of the Muskogee Turnpike, totaling $70 million – are expressly intended to benefit northeast Oklahoma.
The Turnpike Authority’s announcement complicates life at City Hall for this reason. Although some city councilors are excited about the project, others have previously questioned the wisdom of spending millions of dollars a year on the Gilcrease Expressway.
So now the city has a decision to make: take the Turnpike Authority’s $28 million and get the road done in 2019 or 2020, or continue to pay $7.5 million annually – $6 million in federal funds and $1.5 million in city matching funds – and do the job itself.
If the city takes the money, the 2.5-mile stretch gets built sooner, but Tulsans will have to pay a toll to use the roadway until the Turnpike Authority gets its $28 million back.
And that $7.5 million the city is using to build the road itself will go to pay off the city’s $70 million portion of the project, plus debt service.
Reject the offer, and the 2.5-mile stretch gets built piece by piece and is completed in about 13 years.
The official word from the city of Tulsa and Tulsa County officials was positive Thursday, but also hinted that there are still things to work out and that there is, perhaps, a hope that more can be done for the region.
Said Mayor Dewey Bartlett: “The announcement today puts the city of Tulsa one step closer as we look for funding mechanisms to make the completion of Gilcrease Expressway a reality. Cost estimates for this stretch of the Gilcrease Expressway should be complete next May, which will give all stakeholders a complete picture regarding our ability to fund this project.”
County Commissioner Karen Keith said she is excited about Thursday’s announcement, but she hopes that the Turnpike Authority’s work will be expanded to complete the western loop of the expressway around Tulsa.
“The Gilcrease Expressway will pave the way for growth in west Tulsa County,” she said. “I hope Gov. Fallin and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority will consider expanding this project beyond what is proposed.”
Construction of the expressway — a 19-mile stretch of roads that will eventually run from Interstate 244 just east of Memorial Drive to Interstate 44 at west 51st Street — has proceeded in fits and starts since it was first envisioned as part of the state Metropolitan Area Expressway System about 50 years ago.
City officials estimate that using existing funding sources, the entire project won’t be done until about 2052.
Here are the other projects the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority plans to fund through the sale of revenue bonds:
- Turner Turnpike: $300 million to reconstruct 22 miles of the roadway
- HE Bailey Turnpike: $32 million to reconstruct 7.5 miles of the roadway
- Southwest OKC Kilpatrick Extension: $190 million to extend roadway seven miles
- Northeast OK County Loop: $300 million to construct 21 miles of new roadway