HOLLY SPRINGS — Spend your time in rush-hour congestion, or spend your money on the new toll road.
That choice has finally come for thousands of commuters in western Wake County.
At 6 a.m. Thursday, the state Department of Transportation will open a six-mile section of the 540 Outer Loop from Holly Springs to Apex completing the 18.8-mile Triangle Expressway to Research Triangle Park. Electronic toll collection on this part of TriEx starts Jan. 2.
The $1.1 billion toll road offers a six-lane alternative for commuters who squeeze onto N.C. 55 or find more circuitous routes on two-lane country roads for the daily work trip from Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina and southwest Wake to their jobs in Durham, RTP and Raleigh.
Relentless growth across western Wake in the past two decades has made a slew of road improvements including widenings for U.S. 1, N.C. 55 and Davis Drive seem insignificant. A slowdown in highway money delayed plans for the Outer Loop for so many years that a 300-foot swath reserved for the roadway grew into a pine forest.
Everything changed when the project was reborn as North Carolinas first modern toll road, and construction began in 2009.
In the past year, nearly 50,000 drivers have signaled their intention to use the Triangle Expressway at least occasionally. They have equipped their cars with N.C. Quick Pass transponders to qualify for the lowest toll rates $2.64 for the full drive from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 in RTP, less for shorter trips. The corresponding rate for cars without transponders their drivers receive bills in the mail is $4.04.
Kathy Boyer says she gets her moneys worth. She drives home to Fuquay-Varina from her office near RTP, and she began using TriEx in August when it was extended as far south as U.S. 64 at Apex. She gets home 10 minutes sooner for a one-way toll of $1.53.
Im sacrificing money for time, said Boyer, 34. But so far its been worth it for me to pay that extra money so I can save 10 minutes. Its not just 10 minutes of extra driving I save its 10 minutes of traffic congestion headaches.
The section that opens Thursday will bring TriEx six miles closer to her home in Fuquay-Varina, bypassing 13 traffic signals on a busy stretch of N.C. 55 that creeps through Apex. Her new toll for the longer drive will be $2.34.
Im very excited, Boyer said. Im expecting my commute time to be cut even further, thats for sure.
But plenty of drivers will prefer to keep their money and spend their time.
Its just a ridiculous expense, said Melanie Jacobs, 32, of Holly Springs. I guess the toll road is needed, but I dont see myself using it. I have extra time, so I can go around.
Chris Jackson expressed a complaint often heard around here: The 540 Outer Loop was built without tolls in northern Wake, but southern Wake drivers didnt get the same deal.
I think its an extra tax on the people that have to use it from down here, said Jackson, 38, of Holly Springs. I dont agree with that. I understand that the money ran out, but thats not the people down heres fault.
Dick Sears, the Holly Springs mayor, says those complaints seem to have died down since the first section of TriEx opened in RTP last December. Holly Springs is a booming community, with more than 25,000 residents up from 9,200 in 2000. Much of its growth has come in anticipation of the new expressway to RTP.
I think, overall, Holly Springs is very happy that its opening, Sears said. There are people that probably will never use the toll road, and thats OK. Its a choice.
Gene Conti, the DOT secretary, donned a Santa suit to talk about TriEx for Triangle TV cameras Wednesday.
The road is opening 13 days early before toll collection starts Jan. 2, and it will come in about $30 million to $40 million under budget, Conti said. He credited most of the savings to a depressed real estate market, which reduced DOTs land acquisition costs.
We think its a good bargain for people who want to have a good, safe and reliable trip in and out of the Triangle every day, Conti said. The traffic has picked up as we have added sections, and I think with this last section youll see a big bump in the traffic usage. It will be used. Our revenues are on target with what we thought, so its going to be a good facility for the Triangle.
Conti said he hoped the General Assembly would agree with a request from a Wake area transportation planning board seeking the repeal of a state law that has stalled work on the next section of the 540 Outer Loop, from Holly Springs to I-40 near Garner.
Federal environmental regulators said they would not evaluate the states favored Orange Route, which would damage sensitive wetlands, unless the state repeals a 2011 law that prevents DOT from conducting a comparable study of the Red Route alternative, which would damage homes and businesses in Garner.
We told the town of Garner that we would not build the Red Route if that was the only route the Corps (of Engineers) would permit, Conti said.
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/