Monday, December 31, 2012

Triangle Expressway: NOW Will I Take It?

The Triangle Expressway, also known as NC 540, is a new toll road. I've blogged about it a bunch before, but as of two weeks ago, it's now finished all the way south to Holly Springs (map).

I've gone on record as saying that the existing segments of the tollway don't save me any time, and so there's no reason for me to take it. The new southernmost segment, however, is a game changer. But how much?

If you live in Fuquay-Varina and work in Durham, there is no question that the new toll road is a huge time saver for you, on the order of 10-15 minutes, maybe more depending on the time of day. (NC 55 through downtown Apex is an awful bottleneck at rushhour, and the new expressway bypasses it completely.) However, this is my blog, so I don't care about you. Let's talk about me! My case is a special case, after all, because the location of our house makes the alternative free routes - specifically, NC 751 - more viable for us.

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When we head to or from US 1 South, which we do maybe a few times a year (often as part of an alternate route to Charlotte or to South Carolina), we've always taken NC 751, which is your basic two-lane country road. Does the new NC 540 tollway, which provides a direct high speed connection to US 1, save us any time? If so, is it worth the cost?

The day the new toll road opened, before all of the new tolls kicked in, I did bunch of back-and-forth driving on both the tollway and the alternate routes, armed with my stopwatch, to get some data.

The results! How much time does the new toll road save when I'm going to...

1) US 1 South (Sanford/Southern Pines/Pinehurst): Five minutes, at a cost of about $1.50*. Whether or not that's worth it will depend on my mood that day, I think. This also means the alternate routes to South Carolina and Charlotte are also now five minutes shorter than they used to be, which makes them a little more attractive, but they're still not faster than the standard routes (I-85 to Charlotte, I-40/95 to South Carolina).

(* - Given where we live, we join the tollway at the northernmost NC 55 exit, which saves us about $0.50 compared to if we took the tollway all the way from I-40.)

2) NC 55 East (Holly Springs/Fuquay-Varina): Again, five minutes (more at rushhour), but this time the cost is about $2.00 because we stay on the tollway longer than if we exit at US 1. Despite my former obsession with F-V, we don't head down this way often, though. Maybe once a year, if that? But NC 55 through downtown Apex is such a pain at any time of day, I actually think it's worth the toll money, especially if we're only talking about a few bucks a year.

Side comment about Holly Springs: when I was driving down there for the purposes of this test, I noticed an awful lot of new development - shopping centers and the like - on the Holly Springs NC 55 bypass. So, Fuquay-Varina residents, beware! Yes, you no longer have to deal with downtown Apex. But in a decade or so, NC 55 around Holly Springs could get just as bad. Holly Springs was already growing like crazy even before the new tollway opened.

Side comment #2: Hard to believe that when I moved to the area a short six years ago, most of NC 55 south of I-40 was still only one lane each way. We've come a long way! Since I moved to North Carolina, My would-be work commute from Fuquay-Varina has improved from 40 minutes, to 35 minutes (after NC 55 widening), to 30 minutes (with the new tollway). But thanks to the Holly Springs boom, it'll probably go back to 35 minutes again in a few years. Not to mention, if I lived in Fuquay-Varina and took the tollway to work and back every day, I would rack up over $1,000 in tolls over the course of a year.

Side comment #3: Amber actually takes part of the tollway (NC 54 to the northernmost NC 55 exit) home from work every day (but not to work), which adds up to about $125 a year.

3) US 64 West (Asheboro/NC Zoo): No time savings. Actually, when heading this way, the toll road is actually one minute slower for us. No thanks. But for those of you north of Raleigh near I-540, the tollway probably is now the fastest route to US 64 West.

So, in conclusion: yes, I will use the new toll road occasionally, but I don't have a need for it on a daily basis (thank goodness).

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