Road Worrier

Road Worrier: So many toll-road transponders, so little TriEx traffic

Western Wake toll road is expected to get busier after the next 6-mile stretch opens in late December, linking Holly Springs to RTP and I-40

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comSeptember 11, 2012 

Triangle drivers are buying lots of electronic toll transponders and setting up business accounts with the N.C. Turnpike Authority, but they aren’t doing lots of driving on the new electronic toll road.

Not yet, anyway.

Traffic counts for the Triangle Expressway have lagged below expectations since early August, when the six-lane expressway was expanded beyond the first 3.4 miles that opened last December in Research Triangle Park. Now drivers also pay to use a 2.8-mile section of 540 that had been toll-free for five years, and a new 6.8-mile stretch of 540 from RTP to U.S. 64 at Apex.

TriEx is supposed to be a timesaver for commuters who are willing to pay for a quick alternative to congestion on N.C. 55 and other roads in western Wake County that are jammed at rush hour. Drivers who do use the road say it can cut the drive time by 10 to 20 minutes each way.

But N.C. 55 was still crowded and sluggish through Apex and Cary on Monday morning. On the new parts of the Triangle Expressway, traffic was light.

“I’ve enjoyed being on it the few times I’ve taken it,” said John B. Scott, president of Apex-based Capitol Coffee Systems. “But it looks like a ghost town.”

The state Department of Transportation last week told a legislative oversight committee that overall traffic counts are running about 7 percent below projected levels. The shortfall appears to be much greater than that on the new sections of TriEx that opened in December and August.

Most of DOT’s toll collections are coming from drivers on 540 between N.C. 54 and N.C. 55, which had been toll-free when it opened in 2007. North Carolina’s decision to make it part of the new toll road was unpopular with drivers because it had been built with tax dollars.

Some drivers now choose other routes to avoid the toll collection that started Aug. 2. But David Joyner, the turnpike authority director, said the flow of paying customers on this part of 540 is about twice as heavy as the road’s planners had expected.

“The revenue on that section is offsetting the shortfall on the other sections,” Joyner said in an Aug. 29 interview.

Turnpike officials did not respond last week and Monday to requests for detailed traffic and revenue figures.

DOT planners had figured that drivers would check out the toll road before they decided to invest in N.C. Quick Pass transponders. They expected to sell only about 2,500 transponders by mid-summer.

But they surpassed that mark last fall. As of last week, drivers had bought more than 34,000 transponders for their cars and trucks.

Transponder users pay the lowest tolls when they drive on TriEx. Cars and trucks without transponders are billed by mail at higher rates, based on photos of their license tag numbers.

A one-way drive on 540 and N.C. 147 from Apex to Interstate 40, about 11 miles, costs $1.83 for transponder users and $2.80 for other drivers. Shorter trips cost less.

The true test of TriEx will come after the final six-mile stretch opens in late December, extending the 540 Outer Loop another six miles south to Holly Springs. That will give commuters, truckers and shoppers a way around western Wake’s worst rush-hour congestion, on N.C. 55 in downtown Apex.

“It definitely will get busier when people from Holly Springs can use it,” Scott said.

Many commuters from Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs families have their Quick Passes now, but they won’t be using them much until December.

“We got passes for each of our cars so that we could get cheaper prices when we do drive on it,” said Garrison Locke of Holly Springs. He figures he’ll save more than 20 minutes on his daily drive to work in Raleigh after TriEx reaches Holly Springs. “Once that’s done, I expect we’ll use it pretty frequently.”

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