$800M Monroe Expressway kicks off after decades of debate

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Last week North Carolina added its second toll road, the 18-mile Monroe Expressway, that gives travelers an alternative to the bumper-to-bumper traffic on U.S. 74 through Union County that generations of beachgoers and others have cursed.

The $800 million project culminates more than 30 years of discussion and planning and only happened after the 2015 settlement of an environmental lawsuit, according to Beau Memory, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority. The group, which is affiliated with the N.C. Department of Transportation, had about $700 million in long-term debt as of mid-2018 after securing financing in 2010 and then 2016 for the project.

For those traveling east, the four-lane bypass starts at U.S. 74 near Interstate 485 in Mecklenburg County and intersects again with U.S. 74 between the towns of Wingate and Marshville.

The authority projects rapid growth on the bypass as the 12-county Charlotte metro area population grows from 2.7 million today to 3.5 million in 2030.

Net toll revenue will soar from $7.5 million next year to $38 million in 2030, $50 million in 2040 and $81 million in 2058, the DOT projects. Initially, it will cost about $3 to travel the toll road’s length. That money will be used to pay back more than $600 million in bonds and a $166 million federal loan.

We talked with Memory about the project. A 2002 graduate of UNC Charlotte, he worked for N.C. DOT and the N.C. Senate for six years before taking his current post in February 2015. Comments were edited for clarity and brevity.

Does this project have broad support?

This project was decades in the making. It has overwhelming community support, and it’s an honor to be part of it. On behalf of our board, I think we’ve been moved by the public reception for this project. It wasn’t that long ago that Union County was the fastest-growing county in the nation.

Like the Triangle Expressway, [the Turnpike Authority’s first toll project], this provides another travel option and additional capacity for regional transportation.

Why did this project avoid some of the controversy that has bedeviled the controversial Interstate 77 toll-lane project in northern Mecklenburg County?

We take very seriously how we communicate with the public. We know we have an intimate relationship with our customers so we put lots of emphasis on public outreach and communication.

Why didn’t the Turnpike Authority tackle the I-77 project?

When the expansion of I-77 was being pursued, the Department of Transportation at the time had no borrowing capacity. The ways that projects were being funded in the state was in limbo.

A P3 (public-private partnership) was one of few available options to pursue the project at all.

How is the Triangle Expressway in Durham and Wake counties doing?

It opened in 2011, and in the first few years the stories were about how no one was on the road and how it was not utilized. Reporters were asking why we were doing this stuff. Now, it is one of the most successful publicly bonded toll facilities in the U.S. [Revenue was 29% ahead of projections, the authority said earlier this year.]

Likewise, we are looking long term at the Monroe Expressway rather than how many are on the road today. This project was financed over a 40-year term and we expect traffic to build year after year.

You need to think in that mindset to build transportation networks that will truly contribute to economic growth.

While not everyone will take it, it’s an option for everyone. And those who do choose it are no longer in the way of those who will continue to use the existing U.S. 74.

What’s next for tolls in North Carolina?

We have [awarded construction contracts] for toll lanes on Interstate 485 in south and east Charlotte between Interstate 77 and U.S. 74. The project is now being designed. Dirt will start being turned by this summer.

The addition of express lanes on U.S. 74 in east Charlotte (also known as Independence Boulevard) is also under study, with improvements expected to be in place by 2024.

Is there any discussion of tolls in the Triad metro area?

There are no plans right now in the Triad for a toll-road project. DOT plans are made locally, so there is not a plan for something like [the Monroe Expressway] in every community. The law requires that projects are prioritized by locals. It’s not a decision made in Raleigh.

For now, most of the interest is in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas. We do have a project in the Outer Banks that is under environmental study.

How is the Turnpike Authority constituted?

We have nine members including the DOT secretary. Four are selected by the governor, two by the House of Representatives and two by the Senate.

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