Texas toll road bankruptcy provides warning on Monroe Bypass

The Monroe Bypass is touted as providing relief to U.S. 74 congestion, but it’s a risky move for the state.
The Monroe Bypass is touted as providing relief to U.S. 74 congestion, but it’s a risky move for the state. 2006 File photo

The recent news that a toll road operator in Texas has gone bankrupt has finally prompted Gov. Pat McCrory to direct NCDOT to “reassess” its contract with the private company tasked with construction and operation of the I-77 HOT lanes.

The governor should not stop there. As Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson travels to Texas to investigate why the toll highway failed, he should be thinking not just about I-77, but about the many other toll highways NCDOT plans to construct around the state.

Most pressing, Tennyson should be thinking hard about the $900 million Monroe Bypass in Union County.

When news of the Texas bankruptcy came to light, Tennyson was eager to distinguish the failed Texas highway from I-77. And it is true that the projects are quite different. The Monroe Bypass toll road, however, bears a much closer similarity to the one that has withered in Texas.

Just like the Texas road, the financial success of the Monroe Bypass depends on projections of dramatic new growth and the expectation that drivers will abandon existing roadways in droves to use it.

And unlike I-77, taxpayers have absolutely no protection if the Monroe Bypass fails. With no private party involved, all the risk is held by the state. If traffic does not flock to the new highway to the extent expected, North Carolina’s taxpayers will pay the price.

And the Monroe Bypass will fail. The last time NCDOT took a hard look at the financial viability of the road was in 2010. At that time, the agency expected that traffic on U.S. 74 (the road running parallel to the Bypass) would continue to grow as Union County’s population exploded. NCDOT anticipated that travel times through the county would get so bad that drivers would jump at the chance to pay a toll for a free-flowing highway.

But much has changed. Traffic volumes haven’t grown as expected. Union County’s population expansion has slowed significantly. And NCDOT has reluctantly begun to take steps to fix up U.S. 74 – meaning traffic speeds are much faster than they were in the past. More improvements are forthcoming.

The result is the lure of the Bypass for a costly toll has become less and less appealing. NCDOT previously expected the Bypass would save travelers 29-32 minutes. Now it pegs that figure at just 8-10 minutes.

Despite these dramatic changes, NCDOT has failed every opportunity to take stock and reconsider its investment.

When Union County towns passed a series of resolutions asking NCDOT to consider less costly fixes to existing infrastructure, the agency steadfastly refused. When NCDOT’s chosen contractor was convicted of federal fraud, NCDOT bent over backwards to keep its contract with the admitted criminals. When every road in the state was reassessed under the governor’s new data-driven scoring system just one was excused: the Monroe Bypass.

Now we are at another juncture. Once again a toll road, following in the footsteps of a long line of failed toll roads, has fallen short of the pie-in-the-sky projections used to justify its construction. This is an experience NCDOT can learn from. Tolling may well have its place in North Carolina, but we must proceed with caution.

The governor’s move to reassess matters on I-77 may be a sharp move politically. But if he truly wants to protect taxpayers he will think carefully about all North Carolina’s toll roads before he saddles future generations with decades of debt.

Becker is the mayor of Mineral Springs, Paxton is the former Mayor of Stallings and Giles is a concerned resident of Union County.