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For Charlotte Area's First Toll Road, There Are Few Cars

Steve Harrison

The Charlotte area’s first toll road – the Monroe Expressway – opened in November.

The $800 million highway allows for much faster travel times through Union County. But the number of vehicles using the expressway in its first month is off pace to make the state’s first-year traffic projection.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation's consultant projected there was demand on the expressway for just under 146,000 daily transactions in its first year, though a consultant said there would be a "ramp-up" period when people adjusted to the expressway. That ramp-up projection is for just under 90,000 daily transactions in the first year.

A transaction is when a car or truck passes under one of the seven electronic tolling stations on each side of the highway. So, a 36-mile round trip would count as 14 transactions.

In December — the expressway’s first full month of operation — it averaged 60,000 daily transactions, according to data obtained by WFAE.

Beau Memory, the executive director of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, said he isn’t fazed.

“For a project that’s only six weeks old, we think it’s trending in the right direction,” Memory said.

He said new highways – especially toll highways – start slowly. He pointed to the Triangle Expressway in Raleigh, which opened in 2012.

"I remember in the weeks after it opened, articles being written about how no one was on it. My favorite article said you could have a Sunday lunch or picnic out on the Triangle Expressway and do so safely," Memory said. "And now, it’s outperforming its projections on transactions alone by 10 percent.”

Building the expressway was controversial, with a number of Union County municipalities saying they didn’t want it.

The Southern Environmental Law Center believed the new highway was unnecessary and would lead to sprawl in mostly undeveloped eastern Union County and Anson County. The law center had successfully sued to stop the highway in 2010, but the DOT later got a green light to build it.

The Yadkin Riverkeeper has bought a 339-acre property near Marshville, with money from a settlement with the DOT meant to protect land and water quality impacted by the bypass.

But as the DOT moved forward to build the expressway, a consultant told the state in 2016 that it was likely to produce $1.15 billion less toll revenue over 40 years than previously estimated.

One reason was people wanted to live closer to Charlotte, making them less dependent on the expressway.

"There was a big shift in growth projections for closer into Charlotte, and that’s a general pattern we’re seeing across the county as people are less keen to have those long commutes," Kym Hunter, a lawyer with the law center who tried to stop the expressway from being built, said.

She said the DOT has also improved traffic flow on the existing U.S. 74. That makes people less reliant on the new highway, Hunter said.

There were also some specific changes in the corridor that had been made to U.S. 74, including some super streets, some intersection improvements in Indian Trail and just simple things like better timing of the stop lights.

For Charlotteans going to the beach, the expressway will likely shave up to 20 minutes from their trip, depending on the time of day. Union County Commissioner Richard Helms said area residents are just figuring out the best way to use the expressway. He said he projects traffic will grow.

"I think it’s growing, it’s a gradual growth," Helms said. "People are ecstatic about the time it does save."

He said he thought more people would complain about having to pay the $2.52 one-way toll to use it.

"Surprisingly, it’s not near what I thought it would be. People are more and more saying they are going to take it," Helms said. "I had conversations yesterday, and they are finding it convenient."

Unlike the Interstate 77 toll lanes under construction from uptown to Mooresville, the state paid for the entire expressway. It also is managing the toll collection system and will use that toll revenue to pay off $300 million in debt – about 40 percent of the project’s cost.

If toll revenue falls short, the state could have to use reserves from the sale of bonds to cover the debt. Memory said that won’t happen.

"The tolls will pay for that share of the project over 40 years," he said. 

Meanwhile, the first phase of the I-77 toll lanes is scheduled to open later this year.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the state projects just under 90,000 daily toll transactions in the first year of the expressway to allow for a "rampup period." About 146,000 daily transactions are projected for the second year.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.