For much of the day, the Triangle Expressway is a sprawling, six-lane road where only a few cars can be seen sporadically.
But traffic picks up during rush hour, and commuters who spend up to $9.30 per day using the road consider it a godsend that helps them avoid the traffic headaches on western Wake roads, particularly N.C. 55. TriEx, which opened in 2012, parallels N.C. 55 for most of its 18.8 miles from Holly Springs to Research Triangle Park.
“If you’re living in Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina, if you’re living in Apex, I don’t know why anybody who is working in RTP would subject themselves to Davis Drive and 55,” said Jason Barron, an attorney who lives just outside Cary and uses the road three to four times a week.
Traffic has increased about 24 percent per year since the last leg of the Triangle Expressway opened in late 2012. Daily traffic on the road’s busiest section – from N.C. 147 to N.C. 55 – has increased 72 percent since 2013 to an average of 44,700 vehicles per day.
“We’re pleased to see that usage is exceeding expectations,” said Beau Memory, executive director for the N.C. Turnpike Authority. “The community has embraced this project, and we think it will continue to be successful in years to come.”
The use of the toll road remains concentrated during the morning and evening commutes. On Thursday, Dec. 8, for example, when nearly 25,000 vehicles headed southbound on the busiest section, 20 percent of the traffic – about 4,400 vehicles – passed through during one hour, between 5 and 6 p.m. In contrast, only 900 vehicles made that same trip between 10 and 11 a.m.
In the last four years, stand-still rush-hour traffic on N.C. 55 and other local roads has sent commuters like Barron flooding to use TriEx, despite increasing tolls, as western Wake County continues to explode with new residents.
“In the beginning, nobody was really using it,” said Jayna Huffines of Holly Springs, a teacher who uses the road two to three times a month. “But now I feel like people are really catching on.”
While TriEx may look empty at times now, the road was built to accommodate traffic over the next 30 years, according to NCDOT officials. Wake County, which hit 1 million residents in 2014, was part of the nation’s 16th fastest growing metropolitan area last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Realtors and municipalities, in particular, cite the toll road as an asset to attract new residents and businesses to the area, touting how quickly people can travel to and from work. These groups already are talking up two planned interchanges that NCDOT anticipates opening on the Triangle Expressway within the next couple years – one at Old Holly Springs-Apex Road in early 2017 and the other at Morrisville Parkway in 2019.
Once they open, the state’s first modern toll road is expected to generate even more growth, particularly in western Holly Springs and southern Apex. There already are several planned subdivisions and mixed-use developments that are expected to spawn thousands of new homes – and more drivers.
There also are longtime plans to extend the expressway from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 to Knightdale to complete the 540 Outer Loop. The NCDOT anticipates construction will begin on the first leg of the extension in a couple years. Forecasts show traffic at the southern end of the Triangle Expressway, where the extension would connect, is expected to increase by as much as 35 percent once the project is complete.
“I have to believe with the continued residential growth in (Apex and Holly Springs) that ridership is going to increase,” Barron said. “If not, people are just being stubborn.”
That is exactly what NCDOT envisioned all along.
“As the region continues to grow, completing the 540 Outer Loop will provide an alternate route to existing roads with high traffic volumes,” Memory said. “The Complete 540 project will not have traffic signals and will utilize all electronic tolling, providing a 70 mile-per-hour connection between Apex and Knightdale.”
Worth the cost?
When the last leg of the Triangle Expressway opened in December 2012, it cost N.C. Quick Pass electronic transponder owners $2.64 for the full drive from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 in RTP. For cars without transponders, drivers would receive bills in the mail for $4.04.
By January 2016, the cost of the same trip had risen 15 percent, to $3.04 for Quick Pass customers and $4.65 for bill-by-mail customers. The toll is expected to rise again by 3.5 percent on Jan. 1 as part of an annual increase based on the financing requirements of the project.
Toll revenue is used to help pay off the bonds sold to finance the $1.1 billion highway, as well as pay for maintenance, including repairs, signs, mowing and snow plowing.
State law requires that the toll be removed once the debt is repaid, which is estimated to be by 2050.
“I have no idea how much money I’ve spent on tolls over the last two years, and I don’t even really care,” said Barron, who drives in the opposite direction from his Morrisville office to get to TriEx and still shaves 10 to 12 minutes off his drive. “It’s well worth the investment.”
Apex resident Lori Drum, a clinical trials IT project manager who uses the road daily, said even though traffic is picking up, she does not believe that it pulls enough cars off roads like N.C. 54 to relieve congestion in those areas. Drum said cost is a deterrent for many people, and some who can afford it still don’t want to pay to drive on a highway that is free north of I-40 and across North Raleigh.
“I think generally it was well built and implemented really well,” she said. “But it is essentially unfair that the southern part of the Raleigh area has to pay to use 540 and the northern part does not. They should make it all toll or no toll.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4520: @KTrogdon