The 540 Outer Loop was still years in the future and miles away in 2008, when Tamra Missner and her husband searched for the perfect place to live in western Wake County. But it was always on her mind.
Now the six-lane expressway is about to arrive, practically in the back yard of their carefully chosen home in northwest Cary. Missner, 43, has waited four years for this.
“We’ll be able to hop on the road and get wherever we want to be,” Missner said. “I think 540 is fabulous for connecting the outer parts of Raleigh to each other. We’re excited to see it finished and come around to us.”
Their wooded cul-de-sac is insulated from the traffic that will start rolling nearby this week on a new section of the Triangle Expressway toll road, which brings 540 south from Research Triangle Park to U.S. 64 at Apex.
The state Department of Transportation will open this second phase of TriEx at 11 a.m. Wednesday. Toll collection on the new road begins after midnight Thursday morning.
Drivers have been paying electronic tolls since January on the first section of TriEx, which takes N.C. 147 from Interstate 40 through RTP to 540. Construction is under way on the third phase, continuing south from U.S. 64 to N.C. 55 at Holly Springs. When it opens in January 2013, DOT will have added 12.6 miles of the 540 Outer Loop in western Wake.
TriEx will offer thousands of commuters a quicker option for the daily drive to work. It is expected to ease chronic rush-hour jams on N.C. 55 and other roads. The new toll road already has spurred retail and housing development along its path.
The Missners’ two-car garage is less than a mile from the Triangle Expressway interchange on Green Level West Road.
“I’ll get on 540 to go to Raleigh, to Six Forks or Falls of Neuse or wherever,” Missner said. “Down to Apex and the Beaver Creek area, where we do all our shopping. And my husband goes to the airport every other week, at least.”
More than 25,000 drivers have bought the N.C. Quick Pass transponders they’ll need to qualify for the lowest toll rates. For a commuter who drives from Holly Springs to the last TriEx exit in RTP, the daily round-trip toll will be $3.66.
Wondering about the payoff
There is plenty of grumbling at the western end of the county about drivers having to pay for each trip on this stretch of 540 – while the northern Wake portion of the same Outer Loop remains toll-free, along with every other road in North Carolina. In Apex, even the 540 fans feel a civic obligation to express regret.
“Naturally, we wish it wasn’t a toll road,” said John B. Scott, 59, president of Apex-based Capitol Coffee Systems. “But I don’t mind paying as you go, and having the people that use it pay for it.”
Capitol Coffee delivers break-room beverages and office supplies to 3,000 Triangle businesses. Scott hates to see his 20 drivers mired in commuter traffic congestion, so he waits until 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. each day to send them out on their sales and delivery routes.
“And we try to get them back in here before 4, so they don’t get into that rush-hour traffic,” he said.
Scott is eager to see how much he can reduce driving times and improve safety by using the Triangle Expressway for some of his delivery routes.
So is Matt Bland, chief financial officer for Bland Landscaping. He has 200 employees and 90 vehicles divided between a northern Wake office and his Apex headquarters, engaged mostly in commercial landscape maintenance across the Triangle. Some of his crews hit the road at 6:30 a.m., and they can’t always avoid rush-hour delays.
“We’re trying to mitigate what we call windshield time,” said Bland, 34. “You may have anywhere from two to five guys sitting in that truck an extra 15 minutes because of traffic. The loss of productivity is substantial.
“I don’t like tolls, but I do simple math. If we’re sitting in traffic, that toll price gets irrelevant pretty fast,” Bland said.
The alternative: N.C. 55
Bland and Scott have outfitted their trucks with Quick Pass transponders for electronic toll collection. Payments for each trip will be deducted from their accounts with the N.C. Turnpike Authority. Both men said they’ll use their monthly statements to measure time saved against tolls paid.
“We’ll analyze that and see if it’s really, truly saving us – if the time is worth the money,” Scott said. “Naturally, we know it’s quicker.”
Quicker than the clogged N.C. 55, he means.
N.C. 55 is the main north-south route through western Wake for school buses, shoppers, commercial vehicles and especially commuters driving to work in the RTP area from Cary, Apex, Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina and Harnett County.
The daily delays on N.C. 55 are worst for traffic heading north in the morning and south in the afternoon. This ebb and flow shapes work schedules and domestic routines for thousands of people – especially in Apex, where the four-lane highway is squeezed into two lanes as it crawls through the center of town.
“In the mornings and afternoons, it’s terrible down that stretch,” said Mack Thorpe, who sells antiques, gifts and country home decor at The Rusty Bucket on Salem Street, two blocks from N.C. 55. Shoppers can find it a challenge to visit the town’s charming downtown district, he said.
“They plan their trip once they discover our shop,” Thorpe said. “They will tend to come in the middle of the day, or they try to avoid weekdays and come on a Saturday when there’s less traffic. That ultimately restricts us and them shopping with us.”
Buying time in Apex
Retailers and restaurateurs count on seeing more regular customers downtown after TriEx is completed around Apex at the end of the year, easing congestion on N.C. 55.
That’s the hope of Mayor Keith Weatherly, too. He is sour on tolls, but not on the prospect of a new six-lane bypass.
“Hopefully it will clear up Highway 55 if people can be convinced to pay the toll and get on the thing,” Weatherly said. “Apex downtown will be considered a destination rather than a spontaneous stop on a commute somewhere.”
Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht expects some commuters will welcome the option to use the new toll road – and others will enjoy an easier drive when N.C. 55 and other roads become a bit less congested.
But we’re only buying time with TriEx, he said.
“Whenever you add road capacity, you’re helping with a problem,” Weinbrecht said. “But in the long term, (the roads will) all fill up again, anyway.”
He’s hoping the Wake County commissioners will give voters the option to raise the local sales tax, to pay for bus and rail transit improvements.
“Paving is only one solution,” Weinbrecht said. “You need a multi-modal solution – transit, definitely – to solve traffic congestion in the area. Hopefully our citizens will be able to vote on that one day.”
Forces in favor of 540
The 540 Outer Loop arcs north around Raleigh for 30 miles from RTP on the west side to Knightdale on the east. The booming suburban communities of western Wake County have waited nearly 20 years for their leg of the Outer Loop.
The new sections opening this week and at the end of the year slice through rolling woods and pastures that have been protected from development since 1993, when DOT took steps to preserve a swath of land 300 feet wide. DOT pushed back the construction schedule twice, citing a lack of money, and the project was reborn in 2005 as a toll road.
The General Assembly had decided it was time for North Carolina to lose its distinction as the only East Coast state without toll collection as one of its sources for road-building money. The western section of 540 quickly became a prime candidate. Much of the planning had already been done, and RTP commuters seemed likely to form a reliable customer base for a new road that promised a quicker drive to work.
Lyndo Tippett, then the DOT secretary, doubled as the first Turnpike Authority chairman. He warned darkly that 540 might not reach Holly Springs for another 10 to 20 years if Wake County residents insisted on waiting for traditional tax-funded, toll-free construction.
The region was growing fast, with traffic congestion worsening every year. Cary, Apex and Holly Springs grew by 58 percent between 2000 and 2010, adding a combined 72,000 residents. County planners figure they will pick up another 145,000 by 2035.
With the promise that toll financing would pay for quick construction of 540 from RTP to Holly Springs, local officials reluctantly gave their consent.
Path of prosperity
As it grows around Raleigh, the 540 Outer Loop has stimulated suburban development at every corner of the compass.
Cary enjoyed a housing boom during the past decade on its northwestern frontier, along both sides of the 540 path. Apex and Holly Springs surged more recently. Building permits for new homes in the two towns are up 65 percent this year, compared to the same period in 2011 – while Cary has seen a 9 percent drop.
When the southern tip of TriEx opens next January at Holly Springs, it will deliver drivers to the current hot spot for development in Wake County. Not far from the off-ramp are New Hill Place, a 550,000-square-foot retail center now under construction, and 12 Oaks, a golf course and residential development that reported selling more than 100 homes last year and 90 so far in 2012.
“When you’re looking at where people want to live, (they want to) have the ability to get from one place to another and where the jobs are,” said Tim Minton, executive vice president of the Raleigh-Wake Homebuilders Association. “Being able to get from Holly Springs and Apex to RTP has been a challenge in the past.”
Tamra Missner says 540 was a magnet when she and her husband were house shopping in 2008.
“Having 540 all the way around Raleigh opens up a lot of suburbs,” Missner said. “I think it enables people to live a lot farther out. ... I know when we were looking for houses, we couldn’t get away from 540.”
She bought her transponder last fall and encouraged friends to do the same. She had grown accustomed to toll roads when she lived in Colorado and Florida, so TriEx was no big deal.
“The toll doesn’t bother me,” Missner said. “I mean, that’s how they pay for roads.”
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/