The proposed 540 “southeastern extension” toll road in southern Wake County should be dubbed the 666 Expressway. The devil is in the details, right up to the Environmental Impact Statement upon which the N.C. Department of Transportation was taking comment through last Friday.
The NCDOT created a “protected corridor” for it in 1997, but that premise blew away when it unveiled 17 multi-colored alternate routes, in response to federal endangered species concerns along the (now Orange) corridor. Citizen uproar followed. Now we’re waiting to see whose homes will be bulldozed.
The Purple route gets mine, but the people to feel sorry for are those on the Orange route, who have had their property in limbo for two decades. A citizen lawsuit over a Winston-Salem corridor claims that it’s a de-facto seizure of property without compensation (sure looks like it to me). Lower courts have already ruled for the property owners. The N.C. Supreme Court will rule on it this year. There are 22 Wake County lawsuits in the wings. How that will affect this whole mess is anyone’s guess. But regardless of rulings or route, the whole plan is flawed.
It’s an outdated plan that disregards 20 years of southern Wake County growth. What was visionary in the 1970s and affordable with much lower effect in the 1990s isn’t anymore. Every route estimate is over $2 billion. All are poor choices that wipe out decades of growth at financially staggering and socially devastating cost. All destroy hundreds of homes and businesses, instead of going through woods and fields (that no longer exist). Many residents favor Orange as the least of 17 evils, but outside the 300-foot-wide corridor there are whole subdivisions that weren’t there in 1997.
The funding plan is dubious, to say the least. We’re told the only way financially this road can be built is as a toll road, extending the Triangle Expressway, which few people use because they don’t want to pay for something for which they’re already taxed. To fill the gap between Triangle Expressway toll collection cost and toll revenue, we’re spending taxpayer “gap funds” of $25 million a year for the next 30 years on it. In 2047, nearly a billion tax dollars later, we’ll know if the funding model works. This is what the state wants to extend across the county. It’s insane.
Other improvements to southern Wake roads haven’t been done, because the NCDOT has all its eggs in the 540 basket. Many southern Wake roads could be improved to alleviate current traffic woes faster and at a fraction of the cost, while keeping the surrounding area livable. Ten-Ten Road could have been another Cary Parkway years ago. It still could be.
What do we want?
We the people, through whom we elected, created the Turnpike Authority in 2002. It’s time to ask ourselves whether this is what we really want, as the toll turkeys come home to roost. Every toll project has been controversial. In Charlotte there’s intense debate over a proposal for I-77 toll lanes. Read up on it; the proposed operating methods of the “HOT” lanes are nothing short of bizarre.
It’s an inherent conflict of interest for the state to have roads that must be sustained with tolls and at the same time be responsible for the competition, which is all the nontolled roads. There’s no incentive to improve nontolled infrastructure if you have a financial stake in the toll road. From a toll road’s financial point of view, its best interests are served if traffic on nontoll roads is terrible.
The NCDOT has some very good people who do good work with a very, very tough job. The Turnpike Authority and its mission to create toll roads make it harder. It should be eliminated.
Great highway success stories, like North Carolina’s “Good Roads Movement” that made North Carolina the “Good Roads State” in the 1920s, provide roads with “equal rights to all, special privileges to none.” Eisenhower’s Interstate initiative in the 1950s did the same, making things better for everyone without creating haves and have-nots.
The 540 southeastern extension across southern Wake County is not the far-sighted plan it was 40 years ago or the doable project of 20 years ago. The window of opportunity for doing it right has closed. We need traffic improvements, but the cost for this is too much, in too many ways. As for the Triangle Expressway, our first toll road? Let’s make it our last one, too.
Peter Watson of Fuquay-Varina is an associate director in the Distance Education and Learning Application Division at N.C. State University.