Monday, August 27, 2012

Toll Roads: North Carolina v. Florida

Another section of North Carolina's first toll road opened up at the beginning of the month. As you might expect, I drove it the very day it opened! (That's covered here on another blog.) Of course, I also had incentive not to wait another day to drive it; tolls on the new section didn't start until Day 2.

The first section of North Carolina's first toll road, which has been open since last December, has had some trouble getting people to, you know, drive it. Every time I pass by it, there is hardly anybody on it, especially on weekends. This "Phase II" section solves more of a need, though, and has already been getting more traffic than "Phase I". (Disclaimer - that's the first of many unsourced claims I'll be making in this post.)

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A to B is Phase I; B to C is Phase II, if you ignore the blue line. It's interesting that even though the new expressway appears on Google Maps, its driving directions refuse to use it. Is Google as anti-toll as most of the Triangle appears to be?

On that front, let's shift gears and head down to Central and South Florida, where toll roads are pretty much everywhere.

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If I'm not mistaken, every single expressway on the map above, aside from I-4, is a toll road. Seems to me that this is how you have to do it if you want people to use them. You can't just have one toll road; if you just have one, it's too easy to avoid, and it comes across as "unfair" to those that do have to use it. (It is a major point of contention among Western Wake County residents that their section of 540 is free, while the Western Wake 540 is not.) One way around that is to make nearly everything toll. Or, if you have a major river or other waterway in the middle of your city, you could do like in New York City and only place tolls on all of the bridges, thereby making tolls unavoidable. You have to cross that river somehow, you know. a perfect world, having lots of toll roads instead of just one would allow you to decrease the price on all of them, compared to what the Triangle Expressway is costing ($2.35 for a 10-mile journey, or $1.53 if you have a transponder). But...that's not really what happens, of course. I drove the Central Florida GreeneWay (SR 417) on my way back from Tampa, and the 54-mile journey on that road cost me $8.25 (that's the non-transponder rate), which is only slightly cheaper per mile than the TriEx.

Was it worth the $8.25? Well, no...the idea was to bypass I-4 through Orlando, which is hardly an enjoyable drive. But is I-4 even less enjoyable than having to stop and pay at five toll booths? Not so much. Once North Carolina's transponders work in other states, including Florida, I might consider taking the GreeneWay again, because SR 417 does support high speed tolling...if you have a transponder. But until then, forget it. The way North Carolina does it - no toll booths at all, transponder or no transponder - is obviously the future, but I imagine it's hard and/or expensive to retrofit a system such as Orlando's.

But while North Carolina's tolling system is more high tech, Florida's toll roads get far, far more traffic. I guess it doesn't really matter how high tech your tolling system is if people don't want to pay, or if the toll roads don't satisfy a widespread need. "Phase III" (opening by the end of the year) extends the expressway down to Holly Springs and bypasses a major bottleneck that badly needs circumvention: two-lane NC-55 through downtown Apex. Certainly, the opening of "Phase III" will result in many more toll-paying customers.

I imagine that Florida's toll roads faced a similar plight to North Carolina's once they first opened. It takes several years for toll roads to become "part of the local culture" and/or "grudgingly accepted" to the point where people just take them without thinking about it. So, we'll see how much traffic the Triangle Expressway gets long term, and how long it takes North Carolina to pay off their debt via toll revenue. (Hint: it'll probably be a while.)

1 comment:

NickW said...

There are actually a few choke points that could be used for tolls. US 74 over the Yadkin river just west of Rockingham is one. I actually made that suggestion to NC DOT (to use natural choke points).