The northern 540 Outer Loop will have to be widened in coming years to handle its growing traffic load, and the Raleigh City Council wants to consider transforming it into an eight-lane, 26-mile toll road.
Meanwhile, traffic engineers are considering quicker action to install ramp meters – special stop-and-go signals used on freeways from New York to San Diego – that could smooth out the rush-hour glut of cars entering Interstate 540.
A consultant study commissioned this month will help the state Department of Transportation decide whether to deploy North Carolina’s first ramp meters on I-540, for westbound drivers coming down the on-ramps at Falls of Neuse, Six Forks, Creedmoor and Leesville roads.
The northern semicircle – the only part of the Outer Loop marked as I-540 – has seen steady traffic growth since the last part of the arc was built six years ago in northeast Raleigh, opening a new east-west route for trucks and other through traffic.
The busiest stretches of I-540 handle more than 90,000 cars and trucks a day. And DOT engineers say I-540 will get even busier over the next three years, when a big repair job in south Raleigh closes lanes and squeezes traffic on I-40 and I-440 – sending thousands of drivers elsewhere.
An updated wish list for big highway upgrades over the next three decades, approved last week by the City Council, includes “toll road conversion” as part of a plan to add two new lanes on I-540.
It’s a preliminary plan for a big project tentatively scheduled far into the future, after 2030. Plenty of study and debate can be expected before local and state leaders agree on how many lanes to add to 540, when to do it and how to pay for it.
“We are just saying we see the need to widen 540 as one of our priorities,” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said in an interview. “My understanding is that DOT won’t even consider any of that unless there is some kind of tolling involved.”
Tolls are seeing increased use as a way to pay for added freeway lanes – often called “managed lanes” – as on an I-77 project underway in Charlotte. They make money from drivers willing to pay for a faster trip at times when the toll-free lanes are congested. Along with toll collection for most drivers, managed lanes usually include toll-free trips for buses and carpools.
With all-electronic toll collection, a technology now in use on the 18-mile Triangle Expressway section of 540 in western Wake County, DOT can build separate toll lanes without the old expense of barriers and tollbooths. Toll rates can fluctuate during rush hour, rising or falling as freeway congestion gets worse or better.
Local planners have vacillated in recent years about their approach to paying for an I-540 widening: toll all eight lanes, or just the two added lanes?
Raleigh’s 2035 long-range plan, drafted in 2008, said I-540 would be “converted to toll road” for $366 million. In the 2040 plan, it became a $108 million project to add two managed lanes. The City Council last week endorsed “toll road conversion” but kept the managed lanes cost estimate, $108 million.
State and federal laws would have to be changed before DOT could legally collect tolls from drivers in the original I-540 lanes, which were built with tax dollars. And any move to turn the entire northern loop into a toll road would likely face resistance from North Raleigh drivers and community leaders.
‘There would be carping’
But it could be a popular idea in southern and western Wake County, where many drivers are still sore about having to pay tolls on their part of the 540 Outer Loop.
“Absolutely,” said Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly. “This is a proposal I believe would have so much support that it could be moved way up on the construction schedule. Oh, there would be some carping, I’m sure, from people who want to continue with their free road while others pay for theirs.”
Collecting tolls from all drivers on the entire 540 Outer Loop could generate more money to pay off the bonds used to finance TriEx – hastening the date when the debt would be repaid and toll collection could cease, Weatherly said.
Raleigh’s long-range highway priorities also include big upgrades for I-440, U.S. 1, U.S. 70 and Old Wake Forest Road.
“I favor us having transit so we don’t have to spend all this money widening every single road, frankly,” McFarlane said. “At this point, so much of our planning involves widening and widening and widening. We keep defaulting to just adding more lanes.”
Greg Fuller, who oversees traffic system technology for DOT, said he hopes ramp meters can ease the morning rush-hour congestion on westbound I-540. The meters trigger a traffic signal on the on-ramp, changing it from green to red for a second or two at a time.
The idea is to put more space between those cars coming down the ramp, so they’ll merge more smoothly with traffic on the interstate. Drivers pause on the ramp, but the measured pace is supposed to reduce overall delays.
“We feel like there are locations where we can improve the travel time and make it more reliable with ramp meters,” Fuller said. He expects to receive the I-540 consultant’s recommendations in February.