Thousands of Research Triangle Park workers will have to find new routes to their labs and offices after Labor Day, when construction on the state's first modern toll road will permanently close the half-mile southern spur of N.C. 147, the Durham Freeway.
The Sept. 6 closing will kill an easy link from Interstate 40 to T.W. Alexander Drive - a popular path for workers on the RTP campus shared by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency, and at other workplaces in the southern part of RTP.
There are plenty of alternate routes, including Davis Drive, Cornwallis Road, and N.C. Highways 55 and 54 - but any of them will add more miles of stoplights and rush-hour congestion between Interstate 40 and the EPA and NIEHS main gates on T.W. Alexander.
"I expect massive traffic problems on many secondary roads leading to the EPA/NIEHS facilities," said EPA employee Russ Bullock of Hillsborough. "In short, it will be a major mess."
These workers and other RTP commuters will consider a new kind of option in December when the N.C. Turnpike Authority opens the 3.4-mile Triangle Parkway, a toll-road extension of N.C. 147 from I-40 to the 540 Outer Loop.
The parkway's first exit south from I-40 will be at Hopson Road, a few yards from the EPA and NIEHS back gate. The Hopson gate is little used now, but the new toll road will make it more easily accessible than the NIEHS and EPA entrances on T.W. Alexander.
"We think that our front gate might become our back gate," said Ben Scaggs, who oversees the EPA campus.
The N.C. 147 spur handles 13,000 cars and trucks a day, many of them carrying some of the 3,400 employees and contractors who commute to EPA and NIEHS. Turnpike officials say they tried to find a way to preserve a toll-free link between I-40 and T.W. Alexander Drive.
"We looked at flyovers and other things that might provide that connection, but we couldn't come up with a safe way to do that," said Steve DeWitt, the turnpike authority's chief engineer.
RTP commuters and southern Wake County residents have grumbled for several years about the prospect of paying tolls to use the Triangle Parkway. It's the first phase of the planned Triangle Expressway, to be extended in December 2012 an additional 12 miles south to Holly Springs.
EPA and NIEHS workers are especially sore about what EPA researcher Ian Gilmour calls "a road we neither wanted or needed."
The Triangle Parkway plows through the eastern edge of their leafy campus, barely 100 yards from their cherished child-care center. Rather than serving merely as a paid alternative to existing roads, it eliminates a free road that has been especially popular.
And for many of these environmental and public health scientists, it just goes against the grain.
"At the EPA we're always talking about how we should be cutting our use of fossil fuels, not building more highways," said Silvia Saracco, local union president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The one-way toll from I-40 to Hopson Road will be 30 cents for drivers who buy electronic transponders and open debit accounts. No cash tolls will be collected. Drivers without transponders will pay 45 cents for the same trip. The turnpike authority will photograph their license numbers and send them bills in the mail.
Avoiding the toll
"In theory, I will try to avoid the toll road, to prevent added expense to my commute," said Justin Kosak, who commutes from North Raleigh to NIEHS. "In practice, I will probably see how the alternative routes change my commute speed (and) perform a cost-benefit analysis of using the toll road."
David G. Cole of Chapel Hill, an environmental scientist, drives himself and nine co-workers to their offices each day in one of 14 Triangle Transit vanpools that serve EPA and NIEHS commuters. Their employers pay the monthly vanpool fee, but Cole says there have been no announcements on whether turnpike tolls will be covered, too.
Even if his riders get stuck with the daily toll, they'll be splitting it 10 ways: 3 cents apiece for the ride from I-40 to Hopson Road.
"Maybe it would save us five or 10 minutes, and maybe people would be willing to pay whatever the cost is," Cole said. "Some people in our vanpool will say, 'I don't want to pay that.' It's a small amount, but it's the principle of the thing."
Paying for convenience
F. Mitchell Williams, NIEHS operations and safety director, drives to work from Hillsborough on I-85 and N.C. 147. He says he'll be glad to use the toll road.
"I balance cost against the convenience of exiting Triangle Parkway right there on Hopson Road," Williams said. "It's probably faster and more cost-efficient to take the parkway than to spend more money on gas."
Commuters using the back entrance sometimes face long waits to make left turns into the gate in the morning or onto Hopson Road in the afternoon. EPA and NIEHS officials say a traffic signal will be needed there.
The turnpike authority has promised to install one if a traffic analysis, planned for mid-2012, confirms that it is warranted.