Turnpike board starts spending for toll road

Work will begin right away on an extension of the Durham Freeway to the 540 Outer Loop.

Staff WriterJuly 30, 2009 

— Minutes after depositing $1.01 billion in borrowed money at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday, the N.C. Turnpike Authority began spending it to begin construction of the state's first modern toll road, the Triangle Expressway.

"That money is burning a hole in our account," David W. Joyner, the agency's executive director, said at a turnpike board meeting. "According to my math, we're losing about $73,000 a day in interest, right this minute."

So Joyner called three construction executives to his side at the board table. He signed contracts pledging their companies $584 million to start work on the six-lane, 18.8-mile "TriEx" in western Wake and southern Durham counties.

"After we sign this, we want y'all to get out of here," Joyner said. "Go forth and build us a toll road."

Sure enough, the three men -- two executives from Atlanta-based Archer Western Contractors, in suits, and one in a golf shirt with the corporate logo of Wilson-based S.T. Wooten Corp. -- marched out of the meeting room.

They slipped back in a few minutes later for ceremonial grip-and-grin photographs. But the wheels already were in motion on the biggest road contracts in state history.

Putting people to work

The TriEx project will support an estimated 13,800 construction-related jobs over the next 42 months, a turnpike authority spokeswoman said. And the agency will pay landowners an estimated $230 million -- most of it in the next six months -- to buy the remaining 525 acres needed for right of way.

Jonathan K. Bivens, an S.T. Wooten vice president, said that surveyors will be on the ground today and that machines will be moving earth by mid-August to build the northern section of TriEx through Research Triangle Park. That section will be known separately as the Triangle Parkway.

Wooten also starts work this month on another good-size Triangle job, a $49 million contract to widen six miles of I-40 in West Raleigh. The TriEx and I-40 projects will employ some laborers, equipment operators, engineers and subcontractors who have gone months without work.

"We will be bringing back a lot of people who have been laid off, some of them for up to a year," Bivens said.

The Triangle Parkway will extend the N.C. 147 Durham Freeway south from Interstate 40 for 3.4 miles to the 540 Outer Loop. A 2.8-mile piece of the 540 Loop, originally built with tax dollars in 2007, will become part of the toll road.

Wooten will be paid $137.5 million to build Triangle Parkway and to add an electronic toll plaza to 540. The combined 6.2-mile toll section is to be open for business by January 2012.

Granite Construction Co., based in Watsonville, Calif., and Archer Western joined forces as Raleigh Durham Roadbuilders to win the $446.5 million contract for the Western Wake Freeway section of TriEx. It will extend the 540 loop 12.6 miles south from its end at N.C. 55 near RTP to the N.C. 55 Bypass at Holly Springs. Traffic is scheduled to roll on that part of the road by January 2013.

No cash, please

The combined Triangle Expressway will be the nation's first toll road built without cash collection booths. Tolls will be collected electronically. Bills will be mailed to car owners identified by video images of their license plates. Drivers who open accounts and put transponders in their cars will qualify for lower toll rates.

The turnpike authority sold $624 million in bonds and secured a $387 million federal loan to finance construction of the TriEx and to cover the cost of collecting tolls and maintaining the road. Toll collections and a state legislative appropriation of $25 million a year will repay the debt.

Workers can start quickly on the Triangle Parkway because most of the necessary land was set aside 50 years ago when RTP was created. The state has some of the land needed for the Western Wake Freeway, and construction is expected to start in November.

Steven D. DeWitt, the turnpike authority's chief engineer, said appraisers are making estimates of property values, and the authority may begin making offers to some landowners next week. If buyers and sellers cannot agree on the price, the turnpike authority has condemnation power to take ownership of the land while a final price is settled in negotiations or in court.

A groundbreaking ceremony is set for Aug. 12.

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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