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 toll road. Until late 2018, it was the only one.
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.
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.
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 second N.C. toll road to come online was 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 opened in fall 2018. This will alleviate traffic on the miserable U.S. 74, which has about 60,000 daily cars near the I-485 interchange.
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.