Traffic

State's first toll highway finally reaches beginning of road

Posted August 12, 2009 4:02 a.m. EDT
Updated August 12, 2009 7:02 p.m. EDT

— The North Carolina Turnpike Authority broke ground Wednesday morning on what will become the state's first toll road.

The $1 billion Triangle Expressway will stretch almost 19 miles, from the intersection of the Durham Freeway and Interstate 40 to N.C. Highway 55 in Holly Springs. Construction is expected to begin in the next few days and last two to three years.

"This is a promising new beginning of the way transportation is going to be done in the future," Fourth District Congressman David Price said.

Turnpike Authority officials estimate the cost for driving on the toll road will range from 14 to 30 cents a mile, depending on how drivers pay for it. Previous estimates had the range from 14 to 42 cents a mile.

The electronic toll system will require no stopping. The cheapest way to pay is by attaching a transponder to the windshield, allowing the system to deduct money automatically from a prepaid account.

"The transponder, we think, will (cost drivers) south of 15 cents a mile," said David Joyner, executive director of the Turnpike Authority.

Drivers who don't use a transponder will pay more, he said. The authority will set up video cameras to capture images of license plates passing through a toll area, and they will mail bills to the owners of vehicles without transponders.

For drivers who don't want to pay at all, N.C. 55 will remain a free option for traversing western Wake County.

"It can take a long time even during non-(rush) hours to get from Point A to Point B, and I think the (toll road) will help immensely," Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears said.

The first section of the Triangle Expressway – N.C. Highway 540 between N.C. Highway 54 in Morrisville and N.C. 55 near Research Triangle Park – opened two years ago, and drivers have been using it toll-free since then.

The second section, the 3.4-mile Triangle Parkway from I-40 and the Durham Freeway to N.C. 540 is expected to open in 2011. The final section, the 12.6-mile Western Wake Freeway from N.C. 55 in Cary to N.C. 55 in Holly Springs is expected to open the following year.

State Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said there are no plans to charge tolls on the section of Interstate 540 that stretches arcs north around Raleigh from I-40 at the Wake-Durham county line to U.S. Highway 64 Bypass east of the city.

"I don't think that's going to be the kind of direction we're going to go in at all," Conti said.

The Triangle Expressway should cut 20 to 25 minutes off the average commute time between Holly Springs and RTP, officials said,  and they added that, without tolls to pay the way, the road wouldn't have been built for years because of limited state funding. Still, Conti said the state will carefully choose where to construct toll roads in the future.

"We're not going to implement toll roads all over North Carolina in the next five years, but we do think it makes sense in areas where we have high congestion," he said.

The remaining section of the I-540/N.C. 540 loop around Raleigh, stretching east from Holly Springs across Garner to the U.S. 64 Bypass is scheduled for completion by 2025 as a toll road.

The state is also looking into the possibility of turning Interstate 95 into a toll road, with revenues paying for improvements.

Conti said it's too soon for specific details, but the state Department of Transportation expects to receive reports from two consulting firms next summer.

North Carolina already has four other toll road projects in the planning stages: three highways and one bridge.

Funding for the Triangle Expressway project was secured through a $386 million federal loan and $624 million in bonds that will be repaid with toll revenues.

Conti estimated the project would create or preserve 30,000 jobs.

Officials with Wilson-based S.T. Wooten Corp., which was awarded a $135.4 million contract to build the Triangle Parkway, said they plan to rehire former employees. The company has had to lay off about 200 people because of the economy.

"We will bring a lot of our own people back to work first. Some have been out as long as a year," company Vice President Jonathan Bivens said. "Then, we'll make the determination of how many more we need to hire."

S.T. Wooten has hired subcontractor RK&K to do design work on the project. Tommy Peacock of RK&K said that, in the current economy, maintaining jobs is as important as creating them.

"(The toll road project) is going to have a big impact on our people and our staff," Peacock said. "It's going to keep a lot of people busy for the next couple of years.

"We have about 50 people in our Raleigh office," he added. "Most everybody will be involved in the design of this project."