News: CJ Exclusives

Gaston-Meck. Road May Have Tolls

First project of the state’s new turnpike authority could cross Catawba River

A proposed turnpike connecting Gaston and Mecklenburg counties over the Catawba River will likely be the first toll road project to be planned, built, and operated by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, according to two sources familiar with plans for the so-called Garden Parkway.

“I think the Parkway is a leading candidate,” said NCTA board member Robert Spencer, who lives in Gastonia and is a senior vice president at Wachovia Bank in Charlotte. “It is further along in preliminary planning and process than any other project I’m aware of.”

The multilane toll road has been discussed locally for years and by the NCTA board for months. In December, it received a boost from U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, who secured a $2 million infusion of federal funds to assist with planning and development of the 27-mile highway that would run from Charlotte-Douglas Airport to outside Dallas on U.S. 321 in Gaston County. Andy Polk of Myrick’s Washington D.C. office confirmed the highway’s momentum. The road is “well on its way to reality,” and it enjoys considerable support from the area’s community leaders, Polk said.

Despite the fact that the Garden Parkway is common knowledge and is referred to as “a candidate toll project” in the minutes of the Dec. 5, 2003 NCTA board meeting in Gastonia, officials in the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Public Information Office would not acknowledge the project’s likelihood or provide details about it or any other toll projects being considered. In an e-mail response to requests for information, DOT spokesman Bill Jones wrote: “There is not a list of candidate projects because the criteria for toll projects has not been established by the authority.”

Spencer said that the NCTA board is likely to vote on the parkway in mid-summer and that a simple majority vote is required for it to be selected for construction. The board consists of eight people, including Spencer and DOT Secretary Lyndo Tippett, who is its chairman. The body is intended to have nine members, but one appointment by Gov. Mike Easley has not been made.

Once adopted, the parkway must pass muster with the NCDOT. After that, it’s a done deal and implementation will begin. Spencer said he doesn’t know how long it might take to complete the toll road, but the NCTA’s web site, without referring to any specific project, advises that “under a best-case scenario, the earliest a toll facility might be open to traffic would be approximately 2010.”

A fact sheet from the Gaston Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization lists the project’s estimated cost at $400 million. State law gives the turnpike authority the ability to issue revenue bonds to pay for a toll project. The revenue earned from tolls would be used to repay the bonds. However, Spencer said it is unlikely that tolls alone will cover the entire cost. “Very few toll roads pay for themselves. It’s usually tolls plus some other form of public support,” he said.

The parkway is one of several projects the NCTA board has discussed as potential candidates for construction. Spencer said preliminary conversations have been held about a road dubbed the Monroe Connector, which would connect Interstate 485 to the Monroe Bypass in Union County. Spencer said he’s also heard talk of a road or bridge in Wilmington. Last October, a Wilmington Star-News reported that a bridge over the Cape Fear River connecting New Hanover and Brunswick counties was mentioned as a possible toll candidate at the October NCTA board meeting. Although no agenda is listed, the NCTA has scheduled a board meeting in Wilmington on March 17 and March 18. All other monthly meetings for 2004 are to be held in Raleigh.

The N.C. General Assembly created the turnpike authority in October 2002. Spencer said the legislative delegation from Gaston and Mecklenburg counties were unabashed supporters because they thought the parkway’s best chance of construction was as a toll road by the new authority.

Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Council, said the turnpike authority wasn’t the road’s best chance, but rather “the only way to get this done.” Hicks said I-85 in the area will be at its traffic capacity in 15 years, but getting a new road project scheduled and funded by traditional means is a 30- to 40-year process under the state’s current fiscal conditions. “There’s been a lot of work for years trying to get this built,” he said. Hicks said he thinks the parkway also will increase business productivity by allowing for faster delivery of products to Georgia and Florida.

Under the legislation that created it, the NCTA is charged with planning, designing, building, operating, and maintaining up to three toll facilities. One must be in a county with a population of 650,000 or more, and one must be located in a county that is home to less than 650,000 people. The group also can study and develop preliminary designs for three additional toll roads. Legislative approval would be required for the additional projects to be built.

Supporters of toll roads said the highways will reduce traffic congestion by offering drivers a choice to pay a toll to save time and enjoy convenience. Some critics oppose the bureaucracy that comes with a new government entity. Others say the roads can be dangerous when cars stop or slow down to toss the toll into a collection basket.

Spencer said the NCTA board is studying electronic reader systems used by other states, which allow drivers to pay the fee without stopping or slowing substantially. “We would want to have the latest technology in place,” he said. “There are models out there to copy or improve upon.” Spencer said the NCTA has not determined the amount of the toll on the proposed parkway.

The NCTA is prohibited by statute from installing toll systems on existing highways, but public opinion appears to be split on whether that is a good idea. In October, an Elon University poll asked voters whether they approved or disapproved of what was then the state’s plan to ask the federal government for permission to collect tolls on I-95 in eastern North Carolina to pay for improvements to that highway. Forty-four percent said they “strongly oppose” or “oppose” I-95 tolls, while 39 percent “strongly support” or “support” them. That’s within the poll’s margin of sampling error.

The survey question refers to action by the Assembly’s Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee last October, which gave the Department of Transportation approval to prepare an application for a federal test program to put tolls on existing highways. The toll idea was offered as a faster way to fund improvements to the road. However, the plan to charge $18 to travel the 200 miles on North Carolina’s portion of I-95 was opposed by business leaders along the route.

A month later, Tippett dropped the idea because Easley wasn’t comfortable with it. DOT spokeswoman Sherri Creech Johnson told The News & Observer of Raleigh in a story published Nov. 20 that Tippett decided “that would not be a wise use of resources on our part to continue with that.”

Appointments to the turnpike author-ity’s board of directors are made by the governor, who has five; the speaker of the House, who has two; and the president pro-tem of the Senate, who has two.

Members who were appointed by Easley are Tippett, Perry Safran of Raleigh, Sang Hamilton Sr. of Winton, and Robert D. Teer Jr., of Research Triangle Park. Those named by the office of the speaker of the House are John Culbertson of Charlotte and Allan R. Dameron of Holden Beach. In addition to appointing Spencer, Sen. Marc Basnight’s office tapped Lanny Wilson of Wilmington, who is the group’s vice-chairman.

Donna Martinez is an associate editor at Carolina Journal.