For decades, a trip to the beach from Charlotte started and ended with the fitful traffic congestion of U.S. 74 — a four-lane highway to the coast, if only you could first get through the small towns of Union County.
“If you had to do it on a Friday, you’d just have to sit back and add another hour to your itinerary,” Randy Wallace of Hickory said Wednesday as he fueled the pickup towing his camper to Ocean Isle Beach.
This summer there’s a new way to beaches near Wilmington: an 18-mile toll road, the Monroe Expressway, that opened last November. It shaves 20 minutes off the other route, through Indian Trail, Monroe and Wingate, for the price of a couple of Big Gulps.
Wallace, who had just driven the expressway for the first time after 30 years of enduring U.S. 74 backups, marveled at its quick ease. “They should have done it 20 years ago,” he said.
Toll lanes are very much here now. The state’s first modern toll road, the Triangle Expressway in Raleigh, opened in 2012. The first miles of toll lanes that were added to Interstate 77 north of Charlotte started operating in June, with the rest of the 26-mile project to open in September. Future express lanes will be added to I-485 and Independence Boulevard in Charlotte.
The I-77 toll lanes, built by the Spanish company Cintra, ignited rage among northern Mecklenburg residents who insisted the interstate should have been expanded with free lanes to counter growing congestion. Some vow never to use the toll lanes.
The Monroe Expressway also faced years of court battles but, once opened, appears to be a hit with drivers.
Environmental advocates had argued that the $731 million project would accelerate sprawl and that planned improvements to U.S. 74 made it unnecessary. The dispute was settled in 2016, when the Yadkin Riverkeeper settled with the N.C. Department of Transportation.
From Charlotte, the expressway begins just east of Interstate 485. Its four lanes wind past woods and fields, ending at a chicken processing plant outside the small Union County town of Marshville.
The portion of U.S. 74 that it bypasses is used by up to 59,000 vehicles a day, according to 2015 traffic counts. Despite the highway’s two to three lanes in each direction, average speeds crept to as low as 18 mph in some stretches.
An eastward drive on the expressway Wednesday morning at the 65 mph speed limit took 18 minutes. The return trip on U.S. 74 went through 26 stoplights and a nine-minute slowdown because of road construction, ending 34 minutes later.
John Starnes, who lives on Austin Chaney Road in Wingate, about a half-mile from the expressway, said he’s delighted to use the toll lanes almost daily. They’re particularly useful on his frequent trips to Monroe.
“One day I went to Concord Mills (mall) and I never hit a stop light. It’s incredible,” he said, taking a pause in his grass-mowing. “I wish they’d do more of them.”
The expressway collects tolls electronically through NC Quick Pass. Drivers can get windshield stickers called transponders and have tolls deducted from prepaid accounts, or receive bills by mail at higher rates. An end-to-end trip costs $2.54 under a prepaid account and $3.92 when billed by mail.
Monroe resident Pat Secrest, who pulled into the Quick Pass service center there to get a new transponder, said the toll lanes save 15 minutes each way on trips to visit his sister in Marshville. His daughter-in-law, who lives next door, gets to her job in Matthews in just 15 to 20 minutes on the expressway.
The only local people who don’t seem to like the tolls, Secrest said, are those who are inconvenienced by the lack of expressway exits for some rural roads.
“It’s a timesaver,” he said. After two months’ use, his prepaid $20 deposit for tolls still has a $10 balance.
The expressway is still lightly traveled compared to U.S. 74, with not another vehicle in sight in some stretches.
The N.C. Department of Transportation had projected that the expressway would see more than 14 million “transactions” — times that a vehicle passes under an electronic toll gantry — by the end of June. The N.C. Turnpike Authority, a business unit of DOT that builds and operates toll roads, said data collection for the period hasn’t been completed but that traffic volume appears to be on track to meet the projection.
DOT projected that traffic will grow to 34 million transactions in the expressway’s first full fiscal year. Net toll revenue was expected to reach $18 million in its first full year and reach $38 million a year by 2030.
Beach-bound travelers appear to have quickly latched onto the route.
The expressway’s most heavily-used day so far was May 24, the Friday before Memorial Day. Traffic headed toward the coast was 50 percent higher than vehicles going west, the Turnpike Authority says. The following Monday, Memorial Day, nearly twice as many vehicles headed west as went east.