The Triangle Expressway certainly lives up to its name. The 6-lane highway linking Wake and Durham counties is a big, beautiful road with nary a slowdown.

The only problem? Nobody drives on it.

The 18-mile, $1 billion project also known as N.C. 540 is North Carolina’s first and currently its only toll road.

Defenders continue to call it a success — and to be fair, it is beating revenue projections.

But anecdotally, people seem to only be using it when they’re in a hurry or tricked by their GPS. The free roads that this toll highway alleviates aren’t very congested themselves compared with other North Carolina metro routes.

Put together, all this makes the Triangle Expressway a poor example for how toll lanes would work in other parts of the state.

But that’s not stopping the North Carolina Turnpike Authority and toll advocates from using this highway to support moving forward on a half-dozen other toll roads across the state.

Many lanes, few cars

If you’re not in booming western Wake County, you might not be familiar with the Triangle Expressway.

The route runs roughly from I-40 near Research Triangle Park to U.S. 1 south of Apex. If you’re looking to get from Holly Springs to Durham in a hurry during rush hour, it’s a great option.

From the N.C. Turnpike Authority

But there simply doesn’t appear to be that many people who need to go this way. Here are the most recently available average weekday traffic counts, for the fourth quarter of 2017.

From the N.C. Turnpike Authority

To put these in context, they’re pretty low. You can look up the traffic counts for your favorite stretch of road here, but I pulled a few for comparison.

  • I-440 by Meredith College: 124,000
  • I-77 in Cornelius: 93,000
  • I-85 in Burlington: 129,000
  • I-485 north of Mint Hill: 73,000

Heck, even I-74 north of High Point is at 44,000.

One of the reasons why the Triangle Expressway’s numbers are so low? N.C. 540 most directly relieves Davis Drive and N.C. 55. They’re not super fun to drive at rush hour, but they’re far from the busiest roads in the Triangle.

Davis Drive tops out at around 31,000 daily cars, and N.C. 55 is slightly lower, at 29,000 cars. Most of their length is more lightly traveled1.

That’s a pretty small pool to pull from.

Still, the main measure of success for the Turnpike Authority is whether it generates enough revenue to pay back the bonds used to finance the construction. N.C. 540 brought in $44 million last year, ahead of forecasts.

The toll rate varies depending on how far you drive on the Triangle Expressway, but driving the full length costs $3.25 one-way.

In the meantime, North Carolina is barreling ahead on more toll lane projects — on much busier paths.

Most of the activity is centered around Charlotte.

The first one to come online will be the Monroe Expressway, a 20-mile, $731 million new highway between eastern Mecklenburg County and Wingate and Marshville. The four lanes will be fully tolled but cheaper, at roughly 17 cents per mile.

They’re scheduled to open in late 2018. This will alleviate traffic on the miserable U.S. 74, which has about 60,000 daily cars near the I-485 interchange.

From the N.C. Turnpike Authority

Then, of course, there are the toll lanes north of Charlotte on I-77. This project will widen the state’s busiest highway, at more than 180,000 cars per day.

It’s different from the others in that it’s a public-private partnership, where a private company is currently finishing all the construction and will collect the toll money.

That’s what got North Carolina in trouble on I-77. People perceived it as a money grab, and couldn’t understand why the DOT wouldn’t widen the state’s busiest road with the budget they already have.

The Department of Transportation is under tremendous pressure to alter or end the contract and make those lanes free. N.C. Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon told Longleaf Politics that a decision will come August 15.

The state DOT now has plans to widen two more of the city’s badly congested commuter paths — but charge people to use the new lanes.

The Turnpike Authority plans to start construction this summer on the U.S. 74 toll lanes, and begin the I-485 lanes next summer.

U.S. 74 tops out at around 107,000 daily cars as it approaches the center of Charlotte.

I-485 has about 145,000 cars per day in south Charlotte.

What should North Carolina’s toll lanes be for?

The upcoming toll lane projects are radically different from the Triangle Expressway. The Wake County route is likely a poor predictor of how the new projects will turn out — politically, financially and in terms of mobility.

It appears that North Carolina has not figured out what it wants toll lanes to be for. It’s time for Trogdon, Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly’s transportation committee’s to hammer this out.

My opinion? Use tolls for roads like the Triangle Expressway, roads that some people want, that have their uses, but would never get built in an objective dollar allocation system. Tolls are the only way they make financial sense, and if the money’s there — do it.

But the state should not shirk its responsibility to widen main thoroughfares and make it easier for the largest number of people to get to work — without charging them.

Cover image by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I think this is less to do about the toll and more to do about the road in general. 540 tolled portion currently serves a pretty limited pool of potential people basically just Holly Springs and Apex. Once they next section is completed all the way to I-40 over by Garner/Fuquay area. This is where I think the numbers will start to increase taking a lot of the load from the 40/42 area, Fuquay, and Garner headed to RTP or the airport as this is a miserable commute in the mornings.

    Another issue is that 540 has a fixed toll. I’d like to see them try a variable toll based on traffic load. As it is if you’re the only car out there at 3am you pay the same as if you’re there at rush hour. I think the toll should be based on what the average speed of traffic is on the other roads. If their backed up then the toll on 540 goes up but if it’s midnight and all roads are clear then the toll drops to encourage more consistent usage.

    • That variable toll model is exactly what NCDOT is planning for I-77 and I-485. It makes a lot of sense, but it also has people worried about getting slammed with $20+ tolls.

      • I drive Atlanta’s express lane regularly which has a variable toll. They cap their toll at $13.95. I’d imagine NC would so something similar. Worst I ever paid in Atlanta was $12 but it worth every penny since traffic was at a full standstill.

  2. I’m curious how you came to the conclusion that too few people are driving on it. If the revenue is surpassing projections, then there must be more vehicle traffic than planners expected, no?

    • Certainly, relative to projections, plenty of people are driving on it. But in absolute terms, compared to major commuter thoroughfares, the numbers are very low.

      • But if that many people drove on it, then it would be congested. The entire point is to give people the option to pay more money to avoid congestion. And given that there’s no congestion and it’s revenues are exceeding costs, it’s a resounding success.

  3. This is some take. It isn’t instantly congested, therefore it isn’t a success? There are 40,000 fewer cars on Davis Drive and 55, and that’s a lot.

    Also, no roads are free!

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