APEX — Commuters eager to flee the rush-hour jam on N.C. 55 are finding a quicker drive to work through western Wake County on a new section of the 540 Outer Loop – but they may be bringing part of that traffic jam with them.
The N.C. Turnpike Authority opened a new leg of its Triangle Expressway toll road on Wednesday, extending the 540 Outer Loop another six miles south from Research Triangle Park to U.S. 64 at Apex. Drivers began paying tolls on the new road Thursday morning.
Several drivers said the new road cut 10 to 20 minutes from their trip times when they drove home Wednesday and back to work Thursday morning. But the net benefit was minimal for motorists who found themselves stuck Wednesday afternoon in a 15-minute traffic jam around the new interchange at U.S. 64.
The backups began where the expressway’s three lanes are funneled into a single lane, as all traffic exits at U.S. 64. In the Wednesday afternoon rush, drivers had to wait for their openings to merge with heavy traffic on U.S. 64. This was even harder for those trying to move quickly into the far left lane of U.S. 64, for a left turn onto nearby Kelly Road.
“It was backed up to get off the exit, so it was a bit of a traffic jam,” said Charlie Minnick of Apex, who commutes to West Raleigh. “But the truth be told, I’ve sat in worse traffic on N.C. 55.”
Barry Mickle, operations director for the turnpike authority, said he’ll keep an eye on traffic flow at the U.S. 64 interchange, to see whether any changes are needed to ease congestion. He said he hoped that any delays would dissipate as drivers become accustomed to using the new road.
The Kelly Road left turn from U.S. 64 is temporary. It will end in mid-September when construction is finished on a cloverleaf interchange that will lift Kelly over U.S. 64. And TriEx drivers will no longer be funneled into one lane at U.S. 64 after the next leg of TriEx is opened in December or January, extending 540 another six miles south to Holly Springs.
Many buy transponders
Traffic counts for the toll road were not available Thursday. Business was brisk at the turnpike customer center off Airport Boulevard, where motorists were opening accounts and buying N.C. Quick Pass transponders to qualify for the lowest toll rates. Other drivers will receive bills in the mail, based on photos of their license plates.
The turnpike authority has sold more than 27,000 transponders, including 2,000 in the past three days.
“That’s a real good sign that people are aware of the toll road opening, and we’re looking forward to them using it,” Mickle said.
Don Proulx of Fuquay-Varina bought transponders Thursday for five dump trucks used by his company, G&D Hauling. The company has been involved in construction on the 540 leg that opened this week, and his trucks will continue hauling rocks used in construction on the next leg.
The transponder toll for the new 6.6-mile section of TriEx is $1.01 for cars. Dump trucks and other vehicles with four or more axles pay four times that rate, $4.04. They’re avoiding stop-and-go traffic, and 12 traffic signals, on a parallel stretch of N.C. 55.
“It’s going to be cheaper for me to take the toll road than it is to drive around,” Proulx said. “My trucks can go from the quarry to there in five minutes, versus 25 minutes. And 20 minutes of fuel is a whole lot more expensive than a $5 transponder.”
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