It may not be Bermuda, but some of North Carolina’s commuters might feel a little lost when the state’s first toll road opens next year. The 18.8-mi. (30.2 km) six-lane divided highway near Raleigh-Durham is designed to provide relief from congestion on existing routes between the Research Triangle Park business area and western Wake County to the south.
First proposed back in 1958 when Research Triangle Park was created, the Parkway is being built on a corridor of land preserved from development specifically for the roadway’s eventual construction. Despite this foresight, $230 million was spent to acquire 525 acres of additional right-of-way needed for construction.
At $1,171.7 million, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the Triangle Expressway is the largest transportation infrastructure project in the state’s history, creating 13,800 jobs. Jason Peterson, Triangle Expressway project manager, said North Carolina has the second-largest state-funded road network in the United States behind Texas.
In 2008, the State House voted to approve $25 million a year for 39 years for the project to cover the difference between expected toll collections and actual costs. However, due to the economic slump, funding from the gas tax and new car sales “can’t keep up with the need,” as Peterson puts it. Supplementing state funds and a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan are bond sales, which began in 2009.
Divided Project for
The toll way consists of two sections: the Triangle Parkway and the Western Wake Freeway, but two contracts divide the work into three sections.
“The whole project is really two small design-build projects,” Peterson said.
Phase I, Triangle Parkway, opened in December 2011 at a cost of $137.5 million. It extends the pre-existing NC 147 to the Northern Wake Expressway (NC 540). The 2.8-mi. (4.5 km) segment of NC 540 constructed by the N.C. Department of Transportation with Surface Transportation Funds opened five years ago and will be transferred to the North Carolina Turnpike Authority to oversee.
“NC 540 was a free route, but it becomes a toll road [as part of this project],” Peterson said.
S. T. Wooten Corp. of Wilson, N.C., was the general contractor on this portion of the project.
Granite Construction of Watsonville, Calif., and Archer Western Contractors of Atlanta teamed up to form a joint venture as Raleigh Durham Roadbuilders to complete Phases II and III. These two sections comprise a separate contract for $446.5 million and are collectively referred to as the Western Wake Freeway because the multi-lane road will link NC 540 in western Wake County to the NC 55 Bypass in Holly Springs, about 12.6 mi. (20.2 km) south.
Work began in the summer of 2009. Phase II opened August 1, 2012. Phase III — the final 6 mi. (9.7 km) of the toll way — is scheduled to open January 2013.
The Parkway includes: 10 interchanges, 41 bridges, 22 box culverts for drainage, 71 overhead sign structures, 13 electronic toll sites and three greenway trails.
“It’s multi-modal,” Peterson said. “It’s not just about cars.”
Over the course of the 42-month project, crews will use 130,000 tons (117,934 t) of aggregate base course and 215,000 tons (195,044 t) of asphalt. Phase I used asphalt; the large project used concrete. Both projects brought temporary plants on-site.
Of the 7.5 million yds. of excavation, anything that is 2 in. or smaller is used on-site for fills. Because the area features red clay with a streak of triassic rock that is strong and tough until it’s exposed to the elements, approximately 1 million yds. of rock had to be blasted to make way for the road.
“They were blasting every day for eight or nine months,” Peterson calculated.
As difficult as blasting was, perhaps a bigger challenge is the compressed schedule.
“The sooner we open, the sooner we make revenue [from tolls],” Peterson said. “Bond repayment is 32 years. The first project was completed in two years; the second project is scheduled to be finished in three years, from cutting the first tree to opening.”
To meet the deadline, crews work six days a week. Because the toll road is a new location project, there was little traffic to worry about: just some cross traffic at the intersections. Nevertheless, because of time and lane restrictions, some work was done on nights and weekends, mostly during the summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Two concrete paving seasons were coordinated at night to take advantage of cooler temperatures and for better productivity.
“The site is less crowded because paving was the only operation going on,” Peterson said.
The paving operation incorporated a new 24-ft.-wide (7.3 m) paver and was one of the first projects in the state to use stakeless technology.
“It’s easier on the subgrade,” Peterson explained.
When it’s finished, the entire road will be easier on commuters. To ensure a smooth ride, crews are pouring to meet International Roughness Index specifications.
“We mount a laser device to a vehicle to measure deviations in the pavement. The concrete max is 75; our numbers are in the 30s and 40s. The contractor is pretty proud.”
The Triangle Expressway is one of the first projects in the state to adhere to IRI standards. The high standards set by the team are an example of their ultimate goal.
“We strive to provide a great product,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of pressure to get things right.”
So far, they have. Phase II opened to rave reviews.
Taking Its Toll on the Road
Had the state not chosen to make this a toll road, Peterson said, the funding format wouldn’t have come up for 20 years. The state didn’t want to wait that long before it could afford to build the road, so the Turnpike Authority designated the Triangle Parkway as a toll way project in 2005. Two years later it was selected to become North Carolina’s first all-electronic toll road.
“Originally, it was designed with traditional toll booths,” Peterson said. “But after studying tolls roads in the Northeast and in Texas, in 2007 the board decided not to use toll booths, opting for an all-electronic method of collection. It will save an estimated $60 million in capital costs of infrastructure for the toll lanes, toll booths and personnel.
“Because of the novelty of the system, the public requires education on the advantages of tolling,” Peterson said.
One of the chief benefits is how much faster it will be. The toll road is expected to shave 20 minutes off the commute in each direction.
The speed of travel is augmented by a transponder toll program called NC Quick Pass that keeps traffic moving. Regular commuters can set up an account with the N.C. Turnpike Authority. They then install a pocket-size device in their vehicle’s windshield.
Overhead gantries containing radio frequency readers collect the customer’s ID number and automatically deduct tolls from a pre-paid account.
“It’s just like getting on any other road,” Peterson said. “Drivers won’t even notice it.”
Travelers without a NC Quick Pass are tracked by their license plate after a camera takes a photo. A bill will then be mailed to the owner of the vehicle.
As an added benefit, because so many commuters also travel to regions in the northeast, Peterson said they’re working toward transponder compatibility with E-ZPass. “It will be seamless for the traveler if we reach an agreement.”
Keeping drivers happy is key to the success of this innovative project.
“We had to provide a benefit to get people on board. One benefit is an $8 million intelligent transportation system that will monitor the road, using 81 microwave vehicle detectors. The information they retrieve will populate a speed map, alerting drivers to delays, accidents and other important information. There will be full camera coverage of all 18 mi. It will help clear accidents faster,” Peterson said. “The goal is a higher level of service.”
Because the Turnpike Authority wants the entire length of its first toll road to “look and feel different,” a separate landscape contract for $5 million was awarded: 140,000 grasses, shrubs and trees will be planted along the route. It’s the first design-build landscape contract in North Carolina.
The toll way will be cleaner, with less litter, Peterson continued. And it will be carefully maintained by the Turnpike Authority, with funds built into the bonds for management and maintenance. If traffic picks up, causing increased wear, the funding from additional tolls increases to cover maintenance or expansion as necessary. “We built what we needed to handle existing traffic, with built-in funding for the future.”
To keep the toll road in optimal condition, instead of the standard one-year warranty, the Turnpike Authority offered a three-year warranty, with periodic evaluations. “The Operations group gives a maintenance grade twice a year. They look for pot holes, low shoulders, guard rail damage… They’ll maintain it at a 90 percent level of service.”