North Carolina began building its first modern toll road Wednesday. It won't be the last.
The $1.01 billion Triangle Expressway will serve Research Triangle Park commuters and other drivers who are so fed up with rush-hour congestion on N.C. 55 and Interstate 40 that they're ready to pay for a quicker ride to work.
Because gas tax collections have dwindled as road costs and traffic counts rise, North Carolina is turning to tolls to finance high-dollar, high-demand bridge and expressway projects that can draw paying customers.
State and local planners say tolls will be needed to finish building the southern half of Raleigh's 540 Outer Loop -- and, eventually, to widen the Loop's northern arc.
A dozen dignitaries tossed red-dirt clumps from gold-painted shovels Wednesday in the TriEx groundbreaking on the grassy west end of the 540 Outer Loop. The six-lane expressway will be extended north through RTP to I-40 and south to Holly Springs.
Elected officials agreed to make the TriEx a toll road in 2005, after the state Department of Transportation squelched hopes for a tax-paid, toll-free Outer Loop extension through western Wake County.
"This toll-road option was not our first choice here," U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill told about 150 people at Wednesday's ceremony.
Local leaders concluded, Price said, that "we're not going to wait another 15 years to build this road -- that this is our best option, and we need to make it work."
TriEx travelers will start paying tolls electronically -- there will be no cash collected -- in late 2011, when the first 6.2-mile section opens for business in RTP. The remaining stretch from RTP to Holly Springs is expected to open in late 2012.
The N.C. Turnpike Authority borrowed $1.01 billion in bonds and a federal loan to build and operate the TriEx. State law says that when the debt is paid off, somewhere around 2043, TriEx will become toll-free.
The turnpike agency is moving ahead with other toll road and bridge projects across the state. Construction is expected to start in 2010 for a toll alternative to U.S. 74 east of Charlotte, and a toll bridge that could cut two hours from weekend beach trips for visitors to the Currituck County Outer Banks.
"We're not going to implement toll roads all over North Carolina in the next five years," said Gene Conti, the state transportation secretary. "But we do think it makes a lot of sense in areas where we have high congestion or we have folks with the ability to pay, like out on the Mid-Currituck Bridge."
For whom the road tolls
Allen Phillips, who commutes from eastern Chatham County to his Wake County business, said the TriEx should have been built without tolls.
"I will not be riding the toll road," said Phillips, 51. "It is unfair that southwestern Wake needs to pay a toll and the North Raleigh crowd got a free ride. It should all be a toll road or none at all."
Taxes built the northern, toll-free half of the 540 Outer Loop, but tax funds are petering out. North Carolina has only $160 million budgeted this year for all urban loop construction across the state, a fraction of the cost for TriEx alone.
So state and local leaders say tolls are the only likely funding source to finish the southern half of the Outer Loop. Turnpike authority officials want to start planning soon for the loop extension from Holly Springs to Garner.
And when Raleigh's relentless growth clogs the northern loop and more travel lanes have to be added -- sometime before 2035, local planners say -- the state is expected to turn it into a toll road, too.
Shannon Hultz of Smithfield says he won't mind paying a toll when he drives through the Triangle to Chapel Hill and other points. He says the turnpike will have more paying customers after it is extended east from Holly Springs to Garner, providing relief for rush-hour congestion on I-40.
"It's not going to help too many people until it gets around to Garner and the southern half gets done," said Hultz, 48.
The TriEx project is the most expensive public works job in state history.
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. In the next two weeks, turnpike officials expect to start making offers to landowners and to start building the first TriEx bridge over Burden's Creek in RTP.
The project will support an estimated 13,800 construction-related jobs over the next 42 months. After it is open for business, the TriEx will employ about 55 people to collect the tolls and maintain the road.
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