Drivers wince at tolls for Triangle Expressway

Concept is new to N.C. roads

Staff WriterMarch 5, 2011 

As North Carolina prepares late this year to open its first modern toll road, the Triangle Expressway, Carrie Hawes says she'll gladly pay tolls for quicker trips between home and office each day.

"It's worth $2 a day to spend that time not sitting at a red light, waiting," said Hawes, 29, who works in Durham and lives in Apex. "That's extra time with my family and out of the car."

Hawes said she grew up in the toll-friendly state of Virginia, "so the idea isn't foreign to me."

But other Triangle commuters say it's unfair that the state will collect tolls in western Wake County on part of a road - the 540 Outer Loop - that was built toll-free across northern Wake.

"I've got friends in North Raleigh who work at Duke and catch 540 and I-40 each day, and they don't have to pay," said Charles E. Rogers, 40, of Sanford. "When they started building this thing it should have been a toll road from the start, and everybody would have become accustomed to it."

The N.C. Turnpike Authority said this week that Triangle Expressway toll rates will start at roughly 15 cents a mile for drivers who use the N.C. QuickPass, an electronic dashboard transponder. Other drivers will be billed by mail at about 23 cents a mile, based on photos of their license plates. There will be no cash toll collections.

The northern leg of TriEx, scheduled to open for business in December, will be a two-piece, T-shaped road.

The 3.4-mile Triangle Parkway, now under construction, will extend the Durham Freeway from Interstate 40 through Research Triangle Park to the 540 Outer Loop. There it will join an existing 2.8-mile section of 540 between N.C. 54 and N.C. 55.

The southern section of TriEx, running 12.6 miles south from RTP to Holly Springs, is scheduled to open in December 2012.

Cutting drive times

Later this month, the Turnpike Authority is expected to approve starting toll rates for the entire 18.8-mile expressway and a schedule of inflation-adjusted increases for future years. The tolls will repay about $1 billion borrowed to build and operate the road.

Individual tolls will vary according to where the driver gets on and off TriEx.

On the section that opens in December, transponder tolls will range from 30 cents for the shortest possible trip to 82 cents for a 5.2-mile drive from I-40 through RTP to N.C. 55. For drivers who receive bills in the mail, the corresponding range is 45 cents to $1.25 per trip.

Hawes leaves home early in the morning to dodge the worst traffic, and she reaches her Durham office in about 30 minutes. But in the afternoon, with frequent backups on N.C. 55, the drive home takes 45 to 60 minutes.

She plans to get a QuickPass and take that 82-cent, 5.2-mile toll-road trip twice each day. That will cut out at least five stop lights on N.C. 55, along with regular backups on Alexander Drive.

We'll get used to it

In 2013, after TriEx is finished, the toll for a drive from I-40 to Holly Springs will be $2.72 for transponder drivers and $4.15 for the rest. Drivers will be encouraged to get transponders and open debit accounts, because collecting tolls by mail is more expensive for the turnpike authority.

"For people who use the facility more than one or two times, we think the cost difference will give them an incentive to get a transponder," said David Joyner, the turnpike authority's executive director. Transponder prices have not been set.

For many North Carolina drivers, he said, it will take time to decide whether they're willing to pay tolls. He compared North Carolina's new toll road to the introduction of cable television in the 1960s, when most Americans were unaccustomed to paying a fee for TV.

"You gradually, grudgingly decided it was worth it, and you started paying to watch what had been free TV," Joyner said.

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

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