Toll collection starts Thursday on 9 miles of 540 Outer Loop

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJuly 31, 2012 

The ribbon-cutting was Wednesday, but the big change will come Thursday when – for the first time – drivers begin paying tolls to use part of Raleigh’s 540 Outer Loop.

Relax, northern Wake County. You still drive toll-free on the older sections of 540. It spans about 30 miles as it curves across North Raleigh, from N.C. 54 and Interstate 40 near Research Triangle Park to U.S. 64 / 264 on the east side of town.

But electronic toll collection will begin at 12:01 a.m. Thursday on 9.4 miles of the 540 Outer Loop in western Wake, from N.C. 54 at RTP to U.S. 64 at Apex.

Part of this road, from N.C. 54 to N.C. 55, has been toll-free since it was completed in 2007. The remaining 6.6 miles from N.C. 55 to U.S. 64 are brand-new. This stretch was opened to traffic after a ceremony Wednesday morning.

It’s the second phase of the $1 billion Triangle Expressway, which began doing business with paying customers in January on N.C. 147 between 540 and Interstate 40. When the third phase of TriEx opens in January 2013, it will reach another 6 miles south from Apex to Holly Springs.

Steve Holland of Fuquay-Varina isn’t happy about paying the tolls, but he looks forward to using TriEx. He has a small business with a handful of employees who restore mold-damaged buildings and do environmental cleanup.

“We drive all over the Triangle,” Holland, 41, said Wednesday. “It’s going to be a really convenient road, I imagine, for many different reasons. A trip to Durham or northern Wake County is going to be entirely different once that road is opened up.”

Commuters, shoppers and other drivers say TriEx will save time by providing relief from congestion on N.C. 55 and other roads. But Holland and other western Wake residents resent the state’s decision to make their part of the Outer Loop a toll road – while the northern loop stays toll-free.

“Why shouldn’t northern Wake 540 users have to share in the expense?” Holland said. “It seems more equitable and fair.”

Tolls meant quicker road

The state Department of Transportation told legislators and local leaders seven years ago that if they relied on tax dollars alone to finish the Loop in southern and western Wake, they might have to wait a few decades.

They wanted to get the loop extended quickly through western Wake County, so they gave their consent to make it part of North Carolina’s first modern toll road.

“We’re very pleased that it’s coming our way,” Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears said Wednesday. “I remember it was a toll road or no road. And for those who don’t want to pay, they can take N.C. 55 and it will probably have only about half as much traffic.”

David Joyner, the N.C. Turnpike Authority executive director, thanked mayors and legislators who initially opposed the toll road but eventually agreed to accept it.

“You had the courage to change your mind when you came face to face with the reality of transportation funding in this era,” Joyner said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “We have a lethal shortage of funds to build these types of projects. Being the first to do anything in government is never easy.”

Joyner may have done these officials a favor when he avoided mentioning them by name. Gov. Bev Perdue and other politicians have avoided turnpike events. Sears said he had another commitment Wednesday.

In the audience of about 80 people who turned out for the ribbon-cutting there was just one elected official, state Sen. Neal Hunt of Raleigh.

“Here I am,” Hunt acknowledged in an interview. “We voted for it.

“Toll roads aren’t the most popular things in the world, so a lot of people want to stay away. But if you’re going to get ’em built, you’ve got to do it. Otherwise we’re going to get them — what? in 2040?”

The toll for that 9.4-mile drive on 540 is $1.53 for drivers with transponders, $2.35 for drivers who receive bills by mail. Information is available at ncquickpass.com or 877-769-7277.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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