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Private Money May Prove to Be Best Route to Toll Roads

While public funding is not out of the question, the North Carolina Turnpike Authority is ready to look into a public-private partnership to get toll roads built.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Does North Carolina need toll roads badly enough to pay private companies to build and operate them?

The answer may be “yes,” and the tolls would likely be higher and be collected for more years if the answer turns out to be a public-private partnership.

Many state lawmakers are pushing for a special legislative session on transportation issues. With the proposed Triangle Expressway front and center in current discussions, money for toll roads would be a central issue.

There was an attempt as the Legislature wound up its regular session last week to find $20 million for the Expressway from the Durham Freeway to Interstate 540, but lawmakers could not settle on a plan in both chambers before time ran out.

If the state does not put up money to get things started, however, turnpike officials are trying to keep their options open.

“If we can't do that and there's not a special session, our executive committee has asked us to look at a public-private partnership,” said David Joyner, executive director of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

While most toll roads are publicly built, private companies constructed and now run toll roads in three states. The companies paid to build the roads and are recouping their investments from toll revenue.

“Maybe it would make some sense,” Joyner said. “We've had one company that has expressed an interest in maybe doing that along those lines, but the plan would have to have total transparency. The way we're looking at it, the public would know what the terms would be.”

The Legislature would still have to sign off on any public-private partnership, and at least one lawmaker has mixed feelings.

“Generally speaking, you find the private sector doing things pretty well. The difference here, though, is a private company would have to try to make a profit off a highway,” Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, said.

In Texas, a group of foreign investors funded a public-private toll road.

“The idea of a foreign country or foreign investors owning our roads, that bothers me a great deal. We don't need to do that,” Stevens said.

A Turnpike Authority spokesperson said that with inflation, the cost of building a toll road goes up $2.5 million a month while the debate swirls.

In addition to the Triangle Expressway, The Turnpike Authority is considering the public-private solution for four other projects.

They are: the Mid-Currituck bridge, spanning from Barco to Corolla on the Outer Banks; the Monroe Connector around U.S. 74 in Monroe County; the Cape Fear Skyway, a bridge over the Cape Fear River into Wilmington; and the Gaston Garden Parkway, connecting Gaston to I-485 around Charlotte.


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