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Bumps in the road: State and tribal officials face problems with Oklahoma turnpike tolls

Oklahoma Turnpike Authority

You may have noticed some changes on your trips down Oklahoma’s turnpikes over the past couple of years. Instead of rolling to a stop at a toll booth and scrounging for cup holder quarters, you can now zip under a camera that takes a picture of your license plate.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority started using this cashless system, which they call PlatePay, in 2021. Now most of the state’s turnpikes use it, letting drivers bypass toll booths, which are hot spots for fender benders.

“With the new open road tolling, we don't want you to stop,” OTA Deputy Director Joe Echelle said. “We don't want to have those kind of accidents. The accident rate is really high, so we send people straight on through.”

But for about 1 in 20 vehicles on the road, the system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes it takes a picture but can’t read the license plate.

“Either they're pulling a trailer or their tailgates down or there's mud or snow or something on the license plate that blocks the image,” Echelle said.

Other times, the PlatePay reader takes a good picture, but the OTA can’t connect that tag number to registration information. This happens with temporary paper tags and tags from Canada and Mexico, which are legal to use in the U.S. It happens with tags from some other states and from some tribal nations.

The issue with tribal tags was thrust into the limelight last month when Gov. Kevin Stitt brought it up in a press conference.

“The Turnpike Authority let me know that since we instituted PlatePay — so that's where they read your license plates — we have lost $4.7 million that we can't read tribal license plates. They're not in our system,” Stitt said. “That means they're driving on our turnpikes without paying the toll that everybody else does.”

At that press conference, Stitt announced he was suing Oklahoma’s legislative leaders for overriding his vetoes on tribal compact agreements. Those are financial agreements with tribal governments about how to divvy up taxes and revenues. One of them was about motor vehicle registration.

“Let's make our roads free for every single person or let’s treat everybody exactly the same way,” he said. “We can't have someone with Native heritage driving on our turnpikes, not paying a toll.”

Stitt used this example alongside recent court cases about how state and municipal governments recognize aspects of tribal sovereignty on reservation land.

But the unbilled turnpike trips aren’t part of any such legal action.

Oklahoma Turnpike Authority

The Cherokee Nation accounts for about a third of the unbilled tribal plate tolls, but Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. has said the tribe wasn’t aware of the issue until recently.

“The Cherokee Nation has committed to working with Service Oklahoma and DPS to assist with implementation of the PlatePay system,” Hoskin said in a statement. “Oklahoma’s decision to move to PlatePay didn’t involve the Cherokee Nation, but we remain open to assisting the state in accomplishing its law enforcement goals.”

In fact, the OTA has taken responsibility for the issue.

“The issue that exists is not necessarily the tribal plate,” Echelle said. “It's not the tribe that's issuing the license plate. It's our moving to this open road tolling thing that's causing it.”

Because of the bug, turnpike travelers with tribal tags did rack up nearly $5 million of unbilled tolls just between mid-May and mid-July. The OTA projects that over a full year, those numbers could reach $11 million for tribal tags and $7 million for paper temp tags.

“We've had several individual drivers that have tribal plates that have racked up, you know, $700 or more in plate pay transactions,” Echelle said. “We don't have anywhere to mail the invoice.”

Echelle says the OTA is looking to develop agreements with the tribes to share vehicle registration information. And Hoskin says the Cherokee Nation is committed to working with the state agencies on PlatePay implementation.

But Stitt has taken matters into his own hands. On Friday, he announced he’d requestedan extension to the Cherokee Nation’s car tag compact with language to address the PlatePay snafu. The existing ten-year compact was set to expire this month, but the state legislature had already approved an extension. They overrode Stitt’s veto on it the same day he announced the lawsuit.

Hoskin says in a statement, there’s no need to amend the compact, because the Cherokee Nation is already working with the state.

“Since the Nation has committed to working with the state on PlatePay, there is no reason to amend the compacts,” Hoskin said in a statement. “These compacts have served Oklahomans well for twenty years, and thanks to the work of the legislature they will continue to serve Oklahomans well into the future.”

While the courts sort that out, the OTA has implemented an online pay option, which allows turnpike travelers to register their tribal or temp tag so PlatePay will work.

KOSU's Kateleigh Mills contributed to this story.

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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