Cover Story: NC turning to turnpikes?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - VIPs broke ground on the first toll road in North Carolina Wednesday.  It's called the Triangle Expressway, west of Raleigh.  In our Cover Story we're looking at the money issue... Is this double taxing drivers?

In North Carolina we already pay for the gas tax that supports our roads, we pay license fees, inspection fees, and registration fees.  And now-- state leaders want to top it off with a toll road.

Not only will drivers be paying more, but it seems this toll road will be opening up the door to more toll roads in the state, including right here in Charlotte.

Critics say it does.  They say we're going to rue this day that North Carolina went down this road of tolling highways.

The toll road begun today is an extension of Raleigh's outer outerbelt.. I-540 which will run from the Research Triangle Park south of Durham.. and west of Raleigh and Cary.

And it's going to be the first of many.

North Carolina entered the toll road business today.. breaking ground on a nearly 20-mile turnpike that'll cut through western Wake and southern Durham counties.

"It's gonna save motorists a lot of time, it's going to be a very safe and high tech road," says NC Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti.

But it's a road you'll have to pay to drive on.. a concept that would have been heresy years ago.

A toll road.. transportation policy studies director Edd Hauser.. likens it to a far out prediction a college professor made to him four decades ago.

He remembers hearing, "If our transportation system evolved we would all be traveling around in flying telephone booths. We're doing something similar to that.. we're sort of flying by the seat of our pants in getting toll roads."

And we're getting more.

In addition to the Triangle Expressway.. Raleigh Durham area..

Four other toll road projects are in the works.

Two along the coast.

And two here in the Charlotte region.

A bypass around Monroe.. which will take traffic off Highway 74.

And the Garden Parkway around Gastonia.

That one in particular has been met with protests by Gaston county neighbors who believe it's not needed and say they don't want it.

And a campaign's begun to convince government leaders in Mecklenburg county to support down the road a plan to toll interstates like 77 and 85.. to bring in build more roads here.

Because of falling revenue from the gas tax.. which is the primary source of funding roads.. states like North Carolina are turning to turnpikes.

"There's simply not enough money today to build these projects with traditional resources," says David Joyner head of the NC Turnpike Authority.

But critics say there'd be enough money to go around if North Carolina did a better job divvying up its road money.

Says transportation expert Dr. David Hartgen, "The quicker we get off this toll idea and focus instead on how we spend the money we get and how we allocate that money to different regions the more rapidly we'll be able to solve these problems."

That's a debate that's not going to be resolved anytime soon.

The Raleigh area toll road which broke ground Wednesday.. is actually two projects.. the northern section will open to traffic in two years.. a southern route will open in 2012.

The Turnpike Authority anticipates breaking ground on the Monroe Bypass next year.. it'll be open in four years.

As far as the Garden Parkway in Gaston county, no decision has been made on its future.