EDITORIAL: Toll Roads in N.C.: Not a Pretty Sight
New Jersey, maybe. Not here.
That must have been the reaction of many North Carolinians when they learned that dignitaries in Raleigh had held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday for our state's first toll road, the $1.01 billion Triangle Expressway. The Pilot shares in the negative gut response to the whole idea of pay-by-the-mile highway transportation in these parts.
But we all might as well get used to the concept, according to N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti. By coincidence, Conti was in Moore County the next day, having lunch with some of us from The Pilot at the Pik n Pig barbecue restaurant -- which, speaking of transportation, happens to be located at Gilliam-McConnell Air Field.
"I think in certain areas, for good reason, we'll use tolling more in the future," Conti told us. "The project that was announced yesterday was really done because we couldn't afford to do it otherwise. The local business leaders in that community around Raleigh said, 'We'd rather have the toll road and have a good road than have no road for 15 years.'"
Like it or not, it's all a sign -- a road sign, presumably -- of the times. Even if there weren't a mega-recession on, the days are long past when we could expect money to keep rolling into the public coffers in sufficient volume to finance anywhere near all the major highway projects we needed to keep up with our growth rate. In the recent past, even such money as the gas tax produced sometimes found itself being raided by state officials looking to pad out the general fund.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that North Carolina would therefore find itself being tempted more and more to follow the lead of other states and start erecting toll booths. (We use that term metaphorically, since technology today has reached the point that cars and trucks can pay their tolls electronically as they zoom by.) This is especially true in the case of high-usage urban corridors -- as in the case of "TriX."
"In the high-growth areas of the state where you have congestion issues," Conti said, "people are going to be given an opportunity to choose that solution." (The Pilot will publish more of what the secretary had to say on this and other topics in a future Q&A interview.)
Roads Should Be Public
By no means, though, can we hope to see the toll-road trend limited to big cities. Work is expected to start next year on an alternative toll route to U.S. 74 heading east from Charlotte, which (depending how far east) could ultimately approach our backyard.
Also under discussion is a toll bridge that would connect the mainland with the Currituck County Outer Banks. This is a public-private partnership designed to serve particular areas with special needs, and we will probably be seeing more such projects.
Turnpikes do have a long history going back to frontier days. And some may argue that it is fairer to make the people who use a road pay off the bill for its construction, but we hate to think what could happen if that principle were to extend into other public services.
The whole idea of having to pay to travel on a public road seems inimical to the spirit of openness, fairness and egalitarianism that North Carolinians have always held dear.
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