North Carolina’s first toll road project is double trouble for highway users

| 7/28/2008

Highway users are on the hook to pay twice for a tolled highway loop in Raleigh, NC, because of a funding mechanism that includes highway trust funds and tolls, critics of the plan contend.

Gov. Mike Easley recently approved a budget that will send $25 million for each of the next 39 years to a three-stage tolling project dubbed the Triangle Expressway. It will be the first toll road in the state. Funding for building the toll road will come from the state’s highway trust fund.

The combination of public tax money and tolls is a first for the state, a North Carolina Turnpike Authority spokesman said.

“It’s something totally new for North Carolina, but it’s a way to get these projects built,” Turnpike Authority Spokesman Beau Memory told Land Line.

The Turnpike Authority will construct the 18.8-mile Triangle Expressway in three stages at an estimated cost of $967.5 million. The project includes two new highway segments called the Triangle Parkway and Western Wake Parkway. It also will add tolls to an existing 3-mile portion of state Highway 540 – which was originally built with tax money.

The 3.4-mile Triangle Parkway portion is scheduled to open in 2010. The 12.5-mile Western Wake Parkway is scheduled to open in 2011, which is when the 2.9-mile state Highway 540 portion is scheduled to reopen.

Highway users not impressed with the funding mechanism, said Mike Joyce, senior government affairs representative for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

“It’s a shell game with taxpayer dollars down there,” Joyce told Land Line.

Easley’s budget includes the phasing out of a $172.5-million annual diversion from highway trust funds into the state’s general fund. This would be good news if the funds were not being used to build toll roads, critics say. The former trust fund diversion is now budgeted for up to six toll roads around the state including the Triangle Expressway.

“It looks like they’ve already been diverting money from highway users to the general fund for years,” said OOIDA’s Joyce. “What’s appalling to me is the amount of money that has been diverted from the highway users into the general fund, and that now taxpayers are expected to fund turnpike authorities to build toll roads. It seems like a double tax on highway users.”

Memory said the loop project is not feasible without the funding package.

“We’ve seen incredible inflation pressure on raw materials, especially if you look at asphalt. It’s very much tied to the cost of oil,” Memory said.

The Turnpike Authority’s Board of Directors has not yet set toll rates on any of the three toll routes. The board has authority to set rates without legislative approval through a public meeting process.

“It will be an open process,” Memory said.

The authority’s preliminary estimates place toll rates between 13 cents and 15 cents per mile for passenger cars and an undetermined amount for commercial vehicles.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten really any sense of where the rate would be for large trucks,” Memory said.

– By David Tanner, staff writer