Commuters finally will get a six-lane cure for the worst rush-hour congestion in western Wake County – if they’re ready to pay tolls to use it.
The third leg of the Triangle Expressway opens at 6 a.m. Thursday from Apex to Holly Springs. Drivers will get a free 13-day tryout before electronic toll collection starts Jan. 2.
Some folks will think of it as the Apex Bypass. This six-mile stretch of TriEx provides a long-sought alternative to the twice-daily jams on N.C. 55, which is reduced to two lanes as it squeezes through Apex.
The new TriEx section extends the 540 Outer Loop south from U.S. 64 at Apex to N.C. 55 at Holly Springs, with exits at Old U.S. 1 (Salem Street) and U.S. 1. It will complete a $1.1 billion toll road that covers 18.8 miles between Holly Springs and Interstate 40 in Research Triangle Park.
According to the N.C. Turnpike Authority’s new toll-rate map, the price for a one-way trip between I-40 and Holly Springs will be $2.64 for cars with N.C. Quick Pass transponders. Other drivers, billed by mail based on photos of their license plates, will pay $4.04 for the same journey. Rates are higher for trucks with more than two axles.
David W. Joyner, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, said TriEx drivers can expect to save as much as 20 minutes each way on the rush-hour trip between Holly Springs and RTP.
“It’s a big savings,” Joyner said. “We hope people appreciate it. We’re excited to be able to deliver this project on time and under budget. We hope we can successfully move the next leg forward as well, across southern Wake County.”
The state Department of Transportation opened the first section of TriEx last December, from I-40 through RTP to the 540 Outer Loop near Morrisville. The second leg extended the Outer Loop south to U.S. 64 at Apex in August.
Toll collection on the existing expressway will continue uninterrupted, Joyner said, but drivers will not pay tolls until Jan. 2 on the new section of TriEx that opens Thursday.
DOT’s effort to extend the next piece of TriEx across southern Wake is stalled because of conflicts between state and federal laws. Federal regulators say they cannot approve the route favored by DOT, which would hurt sensitive wetlands, unless DOT conducts a full study of an alternate route that would cause little wetlands harm.
A 2011 state law bars DOT from considering the alternate route because it would destroy homes, parks, churches and businesses in Garner. A planning board of Wake area mayors and other elected officials voted last week to call for repeal of the state law, so the road can proceed.
Waiting for E-ZPass
More than 47,000 drivers have bought N.C. Quick Pass transponders and opened debit accounts with the N.C. Turnpike Authority, and many have said they won’t start using the toll road until it reaches Holly Springs.
And hundreds of Triangle commuters have E-ZPass transponders they use on toll roads in northeastern states. They’re waiting for DOT to make good on its promise to accept the E-ZPass here in North Carolina.
The wait is not over.
Joyner still hopes to start doing business with E-ZPass users on the entire length of TriEx starting Jan. 2. But the deal has not been clinched with the E-ZPass Group, a consortium of 24 toll agencies in 14 states from Virginia to Maine and Illinois.
While other toll-road states are considering a similar move, North Carolina is about to become the first state to join the E-ZPass Group without using the E-ZPass transponder. The state has sold 9,000 copies of a “hardcase” transponder that is compatible with vehicle detectors on E-ZPass roads – and also on toll roads in states farther south that use other technologies.
North Carolina and E-ZPass have spent months testing each other’s technology and billing systems.
It’s a big business deal. There are 23 million E-ZPass transponders in circulation.
PJ Wilkins, executive director of the E-ZPass Group, said he hopes in the coming week to announce that the change will take effect in early January.
“We’re just going to be very careful before we actually turn it on, to make sure it’s fully compatible with our system,” Wilkins said.
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