Thousands of Research Triangle Park commuters and other drivers have given the Triangle Expressway a tryout since it opened Dec. 8 for toll-free traffic, but the true test of TriEx will start Tuesday at 12:01 a.m.
That's when the N.C. Turnpike Authority will begin collecting tolls electronically on the first leg of the state's first modern toll road.
TriEx extends the Durham Freeway for 3.7 miles from Interstate 40 through RTP to the 540 Outer Loop. Its off-ramps at Hopson Road and Davis Drive are close to the entrance gates of big employers including Cisco Systems and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Cars equipped with N.C. Quick Pass electronic transponders will pay a base toll of 50 cents for the whole trip.
About 10,000 cars and trucks a day are using the six-lane expressway during the toll-free trial period, said David W. Joyner, the turnpike authority's executive director. The agency has sold nearly 10,000 electronic transponders so far.
"That's about three times our expectations for the first six months," Joyner said. "I think that's a good indicator of the people that will use the road."
The owners of cars without transponders will receive monthly invoices in the mail - 77 cents for each whole trip. The bills are based on photos of their license plates, captured by overhead cameras.
"The software that was designed for this project has really amazing stuff," Joyner said. "You can zoom in to the license plate and see a bug on it, and tell what kind of bug it is."
Construction is under way on the remainder of the Triangle Expressway, which will extend the 540 Outer Loop through western Wake County from RTP to Holly Springs.
Toll collection is scheduled to begin in August for the existing piece of 540 between N.C. 54 and N.C. 55 and for a new section from N.C. 55 south to U.S. 64. The remainder of TriEx from U.S. 64 to N.C. 55 at Holly Springs is to open next December.
The state plans in future years to extend TriEx across southern Wake from Holly Springs to I-40 near Garner. Planning for that project has been slowed because of environmental issues related to sensitive wetlands and an endangered fresh-water mussel.
Many western Wake residents are looking forward to six lanes of relief from congestion on N.C. 55 and other clogged roads, but not all are satisfied with the decision to finish the Outer Loop as a toll road in southern and western Wake.
"A commitment was made, and the northern portion of the Loop was completed with public money," Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly said earlier this month after the first section of TriEx opened for traffic. "And when it got around to us, the politicians at DOT decided they weren't going to make good on that commitment to give us our turn."
Weatherly cast the only dissenting vote in 2007 when mayors, town board members and county commissioners on a regional planning board endorsed the toll-road plan. He still thinks toll financing was the wrong way to build the new road.
But Weatherly is counting on TriEx to improve life in his town when it is completed this year. It should eliminate some of the heavy commuter traffic that creeps through the middle of Apex on N.C. 55 twice each day, he said.
"I am looking forward to it being open," Weatherly said. "Hopefully there will be enough folks who'll want to pay that toll and get their commute off Highway 55, which clogs up that road for local traffic."
The turnpike authority is working out agreements with other toll agencies so that E-ZPass transponders used in northern states and SunPass transponders used in Florida will also work on TriEx, and on future toll roads elsewhere in North Carolina.
Joyner said he will seek legislation this spring to guarantee the legal privacy of transactions with toll-road drivers. The E-ZPass agencies won't go into business with North Carolina until the state exempts individual driving and billing records from public scrutiny.
"Their rules require that these transactions not be subject to public records (status) unless a court orders it," Joyner said. "Right now we can't do that, so we've got to have the law changed."