The Monroe Expressway is expected to bring in significantly less toll revenue than the state previously projected, raising questions about the financial viability of the 20-mile toll highway under construction through Union County.
In 2010, the consultant Wilbur Smith Associates projected the $731 million highway would generate $3.15 billion in tolls over 40 years.
Earlier this month, a new projection by the consultant CDM Smith called for much less money – $2 billion by 2058.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the drop in projected toll revenue is that local planners expect fewer people will live in Union County. Seven years ago, the local transportation planning organization forecast nearly 119,000 households in Union County by 2030. The latest projection, from 2014, forecasts a little more than 100,000 households.
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In addition, those new Union County residents are expected to live closer to Charlotte, rather than in the eastern part of the county. People living closer to the Mecklenburg County line would be less dependent on the expressway.
At the same time, the N.C. Department of Transportation has been making small improvements to U.S. 74, such as reducing left-turn opportunities and making traffic lights more in synch.
The N.C. DOT said some of the drop in revenue is because of design changes in the highway, such as eliminating an exit and reducing some toll rates to make the per-mile charge the same on the entire highway.
The state said it’s confident the project is OK.
The toll revenues “will be sufficient to support the plan of finance for the project,” the DOT said in a statement.
The project would sweep through northern Union County, running parallel to U.S. 74. It would connect to Interstate 485 and end near Marshville. It will likely open in 2019.
Mineral Springs Mayor Rick Becker opposes the highway, in part because he believes it will contribute to sprawl. He said the drop in projected revenues is concerning because taxpayers would likely cover any shortfall.
“If the traffic revenues don’t produce enough money, then it’s all taxpayer money,” he said. “We are all 100 percent exposed.”
DOT: Expressway needed
The expressway has been touted by some local governments, and the DOT, as a much-needed project.
U.S. 74 through Union County is clogged with stop-and-go traffic created from the strip malls and fast-food restaurants that line the highway.
The bypass will give Charlotte residents a faster way to the beach. Supporters also say the expressway will help commuters and truck traffic get in and out of Charlotte quickly.
Six years ago, the DOT expected the highway to open in 2015. Because of litigation over the environmental impact statement for the highway, the bypass opening has been pushed back to 2019.
Unlike highway projects being planned now, the Monroe toll road wasn’t part of the state’s new scoring system under the Strategic Transportation Investments program.
The STI formula ranks new transportation projects on categories such as relieving congestion and economic development. High-scoring projects are eligible for funding; low-scoring projects can languish or be scrapped.
The Garden Parkway in Gaston County scored poorly on STI, and the state recently announced it’s no longer working on that toll road.
The Monroe bypass was grandfathered in as an old project and was never scored by STI. It’s unclear how it would have fared if scored with the new traffic projections.
The project was delayed because of a lawsuit by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which questioned the validity of the state’s environmental impact study for the highway. In 2012, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the SELC’s favor, and work on the highway stopped.
The DOT redid its environmental analysis and was given the green light to work on the highway again. The SELC has sued again and recently argued its case in the 4th Circuit again.
Kym Hunter, an SELC attorney, said she believes the new traffic forecast shows that fewer people will move to outlying areas. She said improvements to U.S. 74 are also making the bypass less attractive.
“When they looked at it first, they thought U.S. 74 would get worse and worse,” Hunter said. “The reality is they have made improvements. Travel speeds are getting better.”
In early years, there is a drop in how much toll money the highway is expected to generate. In future years, the gap grows, according to the projections.
The 2010 projection assumed the toll road would generate $71.5 million in its 20th year of operation. The new estimates call for only $49 million in the toll road’s 20th year, which would be 2039.
By the toll road’s 30th year, the old projection called for $109 million in toll revenue. That’s now $65 million.
The DOT said some of the revenue decline is because of changes that made the highway better for motorists.
▪ The westernmost section of the highway between I-485 and the split from U.S. 74 will not be tolled. That’s about 1.5 miles.
The DOT said eliminating one of the toll stations would “increase the safety for motorists along this route.”
▪ The Forest Hills School Road partial interchange has been eliminated. The DOT said that eliminated a place where motorists could enter the expressway.
▪ The DOT said it reduced the projected tolls in some places. That was done so the per-mile toll rate would be the same along the entire expressway.
“This change will create equality in toll prices so that motorists pay an equal per-mile rate, no matter what segment of the project they drive,” the DOT said.