News: Charlotte Exclusives

For Whom the Roads Toll

Mecklenburg motorists may ring up a new solution to an old problem

The North Carolina Turnpike Authority has given Charlotte-area motorists at least the hope that local road capacity might one day catch up with road demand. The key is the construction of toll roads which can efficiently manage and price demand for congestion-free driving.

The turnpike authority has green lighted design work for four toll corridors statewide, including one in Gaston County and one in Union County. These toll roads could help route non-local traffic away from Charlotte’s sclerotic interstates and Beltway. The toll exploration also opens up the possibility that Charlotte’s new interstate HOV lanes may one day themselves be converted to high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, the path that many communities have found offers the best combination of mass transit possibilities, via express buses, and passenger car flexibility and demand management.

Significantly, the authority would turn to outside consultants for the actual toll road planning rather than the state’s own Department of Transportation which, frankly, botched planning for I-485. That maxed-out, four-lane “rural” stretch of Beltway between Pineville and Matthews? Thank some NC DOT desk jockey for that one.

But the consideration of toll roads reveals some refreshing thinking from state and local officials evidently determined to get ahead of the transportation policy curve rather than follow down well-trod paths to ruin. Just last week a survey by The Washington Post found that despite billions invested over the past 40-odd years on the Metro subway/light rail system, fully 76 percent of DC-area commuters still drive alone in their cars to get to work. Moreover, commuters surveyed say that would prefer more toll roads to higher taxes as a future source of roadway funding by a 2-to-1 margin.

The car’s continued popularity is not hard to fathom. Mass transit, particularly rail, just remains too inflexible to meet the diverse demands of modern commuters. Work in downtown DC, leave work a tad late in the afternoon – and everyone sets their own hours, right? – and you risk missing your last way home to the burbs for the night. How’s that for stress-free commuting?

Locally, toll roads would also route around the apparent stand-off Mecklenburg County has reached with state lawmakers in Raleigh. It is clear that for the foreseeable future the bulk of state road money will continue to be earmarked for the Eastern part of state reflecting not the greatest need and certainly not the greatest source of tax revenue for state coffers, but raw political power. With city and county officials either unwilling or unable to prevail upon the local state delegation to challenge that status quo, then the toll road fix must be pursued and rapacious Raleigh power-brokers must be kept far, far away toll road revenues lest they wind up underwriting Global TransPark Mk. II.

Much is still left to be studied and crucial decisions are still be made. The toll roads could be non-commercial, car-only parkways with limited entrance and exit possibilities, or full-blown surrogates for interstates. Or perhaps the correct approach might be to build truckways that cater to big rigs, thus removing them from existing interstates. In any event, the tolls would presumably be collected via electronic transponders, such as the EZ Pass system, and not labor-intensive and inefficient mechanical toll collectors.

Plus the actual toll rate itself is a vitally important part of a successful project. The goal is a Goldilocks toll, one that is just right. Set the tolls too high and motorists do not use the toll alternative, set them too low and the road is choked with traffic. However, no matter the baseline toll rate, the toll road projects should look to use some form of congestion pricing to reflect the fact that road space during rush hour is more valuable than, say, at Sunday at 7am. If so, rush hour tolls will be higher than non-rush hour tolls.

It is far from a sure thing, but intelligently-planned toll roads may help Charlotte collect on a bright future.