Tribal Leaders Meet With OTA Over Turnpike Tolls

Tribal Leaders Meet With OTA Over Turnpike Tolls

The Executive Director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority met with some of Oklahoma’s Tribal leaders Tuesday to ask for help collecting tolls from drivers with license plates issued by tribes. The gathering of 31 leaders, part of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, asked for the meeting to explain the issue and begin a conversation on possible solutions.

OTA Director Joe Echelle said it has $12 million in unpaid tolls connected to drivers with tribal tags. The problem continues because the OTA cannot access registration information from most tribes, with the exception of the Chickasaw and Choctaw, which have negotiated new compacts with the State of Oklahoma.

The OTA Director said the issue came up when the Turnpike Authority activated a new cashless tolling system called “Plate-Pay” in May 2023. The system uses cameras to record the tag number, accesses registration information and generates a paper bill that is mailed to the owner of the car. Without the ability to bill the driver, the result is that most vehicles with tribal tags pass through at no cost.

Drivers using the Pikepass system pay through a pre-paid account at a discounted rate, compared to drivers who rely on Plate-Pay, which cross-references the information, so drivers are not billed twice and pay the proper rate. Some drivers with tribal tags have a Pikepass and pay the toll as required.

Governor Kevin Stitt has complained about the financial losses on tolls, and said it’s a hazard to law enforcement to not have the registration information, but officers have access to the tribal registrations through a separate system. The OTA does not have the same access, according to Echelle. “All we want is the name, the license plate, and a billing address I can mail a bill to, and this is routine governmental information shared between other states,” he said, explaining the need for the cashless system to increase safety and reduce the cost of toll collections.

The Executive Director of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma said the conversation was a good start, but said the tribes also want some respect. "If you work with another state, which is a sovereign, that's what these tribes are, they're sovereign nations,” said Margo Garaya.

Eschelle said the Plate Pay system has other gaps - it can't read paper tags or tags not in clear view - but tribal tags are the biggest issue. He encouraged the tribal leaders to have drivers take action to pay the tolls they accrue as customers of the OTA. "You will need to either register your plate with us or go onto plate pay and look up your license plate and pay your toll because I don't have a way to look it up, and we need to work on that."

The Turnpike Authority is still expanding the Plate-Pay system and hopes to have all turnpikes on Plate-Pay by 2025. The two systems for cashless tolling will continue to operate simultaneously.