Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Five years after it opened to traffic, 540 leg is toll-free no more

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJuly 30, 2012 

At first, William A. Smith and his wife balked at moving to Carolina Preserve, a community for 55-and-olders in the remote frontier of northwest Cary.

It was too far off the freeway. It was down too many miles of red lights and two-lane roads.

Then in 2007, the state Department of Transportation brought the 540 Outer Loop a few miles closer, extending it from Interstate 40 through the southern tip of Research Triangle Park to N.C. 55.

That’s just a couple of miles away from Carolina Preserve. And that’s why the Smiths live there now.

“We drive that section of 540 quite a lot,” Smith, 66, told the Road Worrier. “Whenever we are going north, east and sometimes south, we use I-40 or I-540.”

They shop at Brier Creek. They stop by their son’s office near RDU Airport. They visit their niece near Six Forks Road and their nephew in Knightdale.

But their favorite part of the freeway will lose its appeal for Smith and other western Wake drivers this week, when it loses its toll-free status.

Early Thursday, the N.C. Turnpike Authority will begin collecting tolls electronically from all drivers on the 2.8 miles of 540 between N.C. 55 and N.C. 54. (The short leg between I-40 and N.C. 54, about a mile, will stay free.)

Tolls are used to repay money borrowed to finance road construction. It’s rare in the United States for drivers to pay tolls for a road that has been built with tax dollars.

But that’s what will happen here this week. The one-way toll for drivers who use transponders will be 52 cents. Smith says it’s unfair.

“They decided to back up and start tolling a section of 540 that was already paid for,” Smith said. “I know it’s only 52 cents, but it adds up. We’re already paying gas taxes and state taxes, and I’m opposed to it. I would not have purchased a house in Carolina Preserve if I had known they were going to make it a toll road.”

New section opens

This section of 540 has become part of the state’s first modern toll road, the 18.8-mile Triangle Expressway through RTP and western Wake County. A new 6.6-mile leg of the 540 Loop, south from N.C. 55 at RTP to U.S. 64 at Apex, will open for traffic Wednesday.

Toll collection starts Thursday on both the new part of 540 and the older section that drivers have used toll-free for the past five years.

About 20,000 cars and trucks use that road each day. Drivers sometimes notice the overhead strobe flash for video cameras that record their license numbers.

Car owners have received unusual bills in recent weeks from the Turnpike Authority, charging them $0 tolls for these 540 trips. It’s the state’s way of preparing them for actual tolls.

It was built with tax dollars – 80 percent federal, 20 percent state – as part of Raleigh’s Outer Loop. Its fate changed shortly before it was completed, as state officials began planning what originally were two separate toll projects.

Local leaders grudgingly agreed to accept toll financing to speed construction of 540 between RTP and Holly Springs. Meanwhile, they dusted off a half-century-old proposal for the Triangle Parkway, a short expressway through the southern half of RTP.

The two toll roads would be barely a mile apart. Some drivers would pay tolls on one of them, and drive a short toll-free stretch on 540 before paying tolls on the other.

Legal and financial wizards figured the state could save real money by combining the old 540 leg with the two roads into a single $1 billion toll project, the Triangle Expressway. The legislature and the Federal Highway Administration agreed in 2006.

“It saved us $100 million in financing,” said David W. Joyner, the turnpike authority’s executive director. “It made a lot of difference. It was the perfect connector between these two projects.”

As a result, Joyner said, it cut several million dollars from the “gap” payment – now $25 million – the legislature will contribute every year to make up for the expected difference between toll collections and the cost of repaying the money borrowed to build and operate TriEx.

Unhappy drivers

Joyner acknowledges that many drivers are unhappy about this bargain.

“We didn’t just say: ‘Let’s grab this piece of road and toll it, and next year we’ll take another road and toll it.’ That’s not how it works,” Joyner said.

“It has hurt our reputation a little bit,” he said. “Some people think we can just willy-nilly, arbitrarily do this. We can’t, and we don’t want to.”

Smith has plenty of company in his opposition to the new tolls on old 540.

“The road was completely paid for, and all of a sudden it’s becoming a toll road?” said Charlie Meredith of Apex, 52, who commutes to RTP. “It’s kind of a burn for taxpayers.”

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