A commuter highway first proposed for Research Triangle Park almost 50 years ago is among four public toll roads the state decided Wednesday to begin planning.
The project, which would extend the Durham Freeway through the southern half of RTP to Interstate 540 south of I-40, got the approval of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, the agency created in 2002 to build toll roads in the state. The other proposed toll roads are near Charlotte, Wilmington and Monroe.
"We've reached a milestone today with the selection of these projects," said Lanny Wilson, the authority's vice chairman and a Wilmington developer and member of the state Board of Transportation. "This is a first step toward making these a reality. Now we've got to see if they're feasible."
The authority's construction decisions are at least months away, and the agency has the legal power so far to build only three toll roads and study three more.
But that could change. Supporters in the state legislature filed bills Wednesday to let the authority build up to six toll highways.
The proposed four-lane Triangle Parkway, an estimated $69 million expressway proposed in 1958 as RTP was being developed, would slice 3.2 miles from I-40 to I-540 between Davis Drive and N.C. 54. It would speed commutes for thousands of RTP workers and relieve traffic on I-40, N.C. 54 and N.C. 55, proponents say.
For $29 million more, the highway could stretch an additional 1.3 miles southeast to Morrisville's McCrimmon Parkway, an idea some town leaders oppose.
Despite the proposal's longevity, the project has never been a high priority for local transportation planners. Unless it's built as a toll road, advocates say, it might stay on paper only.
The Triangle Parkway's leg through RTP has the backing of business groups and local politicians, and no major opposition.
But it has competition, and the other three projects are further along in their planning. The other toll projects are:
* The Cape Fear Skyway, a 9.5-mile highway linking the planned U.S. 17 bypass west of Wilmington with the State Port and U.S. 421.
* The Garden Parkway, a 20-mile freeway connecting I-485 near Charlotte's airport with I-85 west of Gastonia.
* The Monroe Connector, linking Monroe's U.S. 74 bypass with I-485 east of Charlotte.
So the proposed change in state law to let the authority build six toll roads instead of three could finally turn the RTP highway from a dream into a reality.
"I think it's a good idea," said state Rep. Jim Crawford, an Oxford Democrat who filed the House bill Wednesday. "I think people would be willing to pay a toll to get off I-40. I sure would."
Crawford said he thinks the idea is catching on with lawmakers because they're far short of money to build needed highways.
"They understand that without them, we won't have any more roads," he said. "The [political] climate for it is a whole lot better than it used to be."
State Sen. David Hoyle, a Dallas Democrat who filed the bill in the Senate, said all four projects have strong local political support. His district would get one of the roads, the Garden Parkway.
"They are legitimate projects," he said. "And I do not believe they would otherwise be built in a lot of our lifetimes. Including mine."
Staff writer Matthew Eisley can be reached at 829-4538 or firstname.lastname@example.org.