A plan to complete the Gilcrease Expressway by building a toll bridge across the Arkansas River resurfaced following a recent meeting between Tulsa’s mayor, county officials and state transportation officials.
The idea of a toll bridge has been discussed as an option before, but an Oklahoma Turnpike Authority feasibility study suggested low traffic wouldn’t pay the bill.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett said discussions recently have returned to the toll option but with the city of Tulsa possibly taking a lead role in funding and maintaining the bridge.
“It’s certainly not a done deal by any stretch,” Bartlett said. “In my opinion, if we have an opportunity to finance in a responsible way the completion of the road, the economic advantages would begin immediately.”
The Gilcrease Expressway project began in the 1950s to connect a loop around the city.
The final portion needed to connect the loop, west and northwest of downtown, requires a substantial investment, largely for a bridge across the Arkansas River.
At current funding rates, the project is scheduled for completion close to 2050 — 100 years after it was started.
Bartlett said a preliminary approach to finishing the roadway ahead of 2050 would include combining funding from a variety of sources, including local and federal funds.
Currently, federal funds contribute about $6.5 million each year to the construction of the highway, with the city’s contribution near $1 million.
Bartlett said the money can be pooled and used to finance a portion of the funding based on a plan to collect tolls, something other cities have done successfully.
“There’s a lot of cities that do this sort of thing,” Bartlett said. “We do the same thing with our Water and Sewer Department.”
However, the difference may be that the amount residents pay each year for water and sewer use is more reliable than traffic on a toll road.
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority finished a $1 million feasibility study in 2012 that found traffic would be too sparse to support the authority’s finishing the final 12-mile gap, including the bridge, in the highway loop around Tulsa.
Bartlett said a new, more-detailed feasibility study by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation would be the next possible step.
“Having that done is extremely important,” he said.
While some have called the Gilcrease Expressway an expensive route to Tulsa’s under-populated areas, Bartlett said finishing the roadway would have a significant impact on parts of Tulsa that need growth.
“I think it’s something we can do and would have a huge economic impact on parts of Tulsa that haven’t gotten to participate in our economic expansion,” Bartlett said. “They need an economic shot in the arm.”