Road Worrier

Road Worrier: More traffic, not less, since 540 tolls started

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 6, 2013 

The traffic is actually heavier these days on the 540 Outer Loop near Research Triangle Park, now that drivers have begun paying tolls for the privilege.

Thousands of commuters looked for other routes to work last summer, as soon as the N.C. Turnpike Authority started charging them to use a 2.8-mile section of 540 that had been toll-free for five years. Of course they did.

But they came back. New month-by-month statistics for the 18-mile Triangle Expressway, which combines parts of 540 and N.C. 147, show that Triangle commuters and businesses are adjusting pretty quickly to the state’s first modern toll road.

The 540 section between N.C. 54 and N.C. 55 began life in 2007 as a toll-free extension of the Outer Loop. Then the state received rare permission from the federal government to incorporate it into TriEx, linking what would have been two separate toll roads barely a mile from each other.

Plenty of western Wake County residents were peeved about having a new toll road in their neighborhood, and they still are. They were especially unhappy about paying tolls on the 540 section that had been built years earlier with tax dollars.

Average weekday traffic counts fell by nearly 4,000 vehicles in August, the first month of toll collection on 540. Then the numbers rebounded quickly.

The busiest part of TriEx is on 540 near RTP between the N.C. 147 and N.C. 55 exits.

The Turnpike Authority counted 24,940 toll-paying cars and trucks there on an average weekday in March. That’s up from the August low of 18,970, and it’s more than in the toll-free days of March 2012, when the count was 22,080.

“It’s kind of interesting to see people’s reaction as tolls went in there,” said Andy Lelewski, toll operations director for the Turnpike Authority. “The tolls went in and they tried to figure another way to go. And then they realized, hey, this isn’t so bad. It’s worth the toll.”

Western Wake drivers are making their own calculations.

Debbe Geiger finds that the six-lane expressway doesn’t get her from home in Cary to work in Durham any faster in the morning, so she usually sticks with N.C. 55. But N.C. 55 is worse for her in the afternoon, and that makes TriEx better. That’s when she’s happy to pay the toll.

“It becomes a question of how much is it worth to sit in traffic,” said Geiger, 48.

John B. Scott, president of the Apex-based Capitol Coffee Systems, has toll-road transponders for his sales staff and his fleet of trucks that deliver coffee and break-room supplies to Triangle offices. He spends $150 to $160 a month in tolls for about 40 TriEx miles a day.

“It’s a much quicker route from Apex to RTP,” Scott said. “On N.C. 55 there’s a good 10 stoplights between here and where we need to get to.”

Howard Wilcox, 71, of Cary uses TriEx as a quicker route to I-40 and his twice-weekly golf game in Clayton. When he’s running late on Sunday morning, the toll road cuts five minutes off the drive to church in Brier Creek. But on the way home from church, he takes the back roads.

Lizzie Halstead and her husband pay the toll to save 15 or 20 minutes on the trip from home in Holly Springs to work in Durham.

“Driving up 55 was a nightmare,” said Halstead, 34. “We really love the convenience of 540. It makes the trip a lot smoother and a lot faster.”

A six-lane expressway can handle many times more than 24,940 vehicles a day, of course. Turnpike planners said they designed TriEx for traffic loads projected a few decades from now. Lelewski predicts continued growth during an expected four-year ramp-up period for TriEx, with drivers taking that long to decide whether they’ll use it regularly.

Traffic levels for the entire road increased markedly when the final leg opened at the beginning of the year, linking RTP to Holly Springs. TriEx will get even busier if and when the state succeeds in extending it across southern Wake from Holly Springs to I-40 near Garner, creating a new I-40 bypass around Raleigh.

“I really think as time goes on, this will get accepted and hopefully paid for” with tolls, Scott said. “And if they can get the other portion (to Garner) finished, that’s the key.”

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