Traffic at York County business, retail park creates gridlock and employment headache
The area is critical to the long-term financial health of York County, officials say. But if the thousands of workers in and around Kingsley can’t get there, or leave, there’s concern about how long they’ll stay.
“They built. They employed. They brought tax dollars to our region,” said Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage. “And I don’t want that to stop.”
Companies like Lash Group and LPL Financial hire thousands.
Savage told elected officials and area road planners earlier this month at the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study meeting she is hearing discouraging feedback from major employers in Kingsley, where I-77 and S.C. 160 meet.
Savage said employees are leaving or deciding not to work there, and she’s concerned companies could do the same.
“The sensitivity to this is very heightened,” she said.
Jan Martin with Domtar, which employees about 600 in Kinglsey, said there are safety concerns. Martin recalled at least two recent wrecks in front of Kingsley. She saw one, and heard about the other.
“There are traffic accidents that are happening on a weekly, maybe not a daily, but a weekly basis,” Martin said. “It’s really impacted us on how we attract and retain talent, and that’s something that’s really important to us.”
Businesses have altered work schedules because of the traffic, Martin said. Employees who work with West Coast customers have changed their work hours. Businesses have met with or invited elected and road officials from local to the state governor and transportation secretary to come see the problems.
“We are just increasingly frustrated that we can not get any real movement on getting some changes,” Martin said.
Theron Pickens of Fort Mill and chairman of the York County Regional Chamber board said traffic is “creating a tipping point that I don’t think any of us want to see happen with businesses.” He said combined Kingsley and school morning traffic cause gridlocked traffic on S.C. 160 at I-77.
“If people can’t get to work and frequent these businesses without the headaches of compounding congestion, it may force their hands to look at alternatives, as well as deter others from coming into the area just because our infrastructure just can’t take anymore,” Pickens said.
The RFATS area covers Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Indian Land, Lake Wylie and other unincorporated areas of the county between those sites. Last year, the area had almost 250,000 residents and 95,000 jobs.
“We want that to continue,” said York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell, noting the county routinely tops job creation lists in the region and even nation. “We can’t have that screwed up.”
Rob Youngblood, president of the regional chamber, said business owners and managers are concerned about traffic congestion, especially in the Fort Mill and Tega Cay areas. Community traits attracting new business also are making it difficult once there.
“The good news is we’re located in a region with a great quality of life and an area where many people want to live,” he said. “It is vitally important that businesses and the tax base they provide continue to grow as well.”
The slow pace of lane widening and other road improvements, Pickens said, may be too little, too late.
“Unless more attention is given to the growing traffic congestion issues, sooner than later, we stand to lose not only key employment centers but the culture that attracted people here in the first place,” Pickens said. “The result will drive people away, because they can’t get around.”
The good news is change is coming. It just won’t come immediately.
“Certainly no relief is coming in the short-term,” said Berry Mattox with the South Carolina Department of Transportation.
Mattox updated leaders last week on six major intersection improvement projects, two widenings, 11 bridge replacements, three pedestrian projects and two interchange configurations.
Included in the top projects is a $19 million interchange improvement at I-77 and S.C. 160, likely to begin in 2022 and take two years to compete.
“Any time you’re touching the interstate, it’s an exhaustive review,” Mattox said.
The intersection at Kingsley isn’t unique in how long improvements can take. An estimated $18 million interchange improvement at I-77, Cherry and Celanese roads isn’t fully funded and is not actively moving forward.
Intersections at U.S. 521/Marvin Road in Indian Land, Pleasant Road/Carowinds Boulevard and Clebourne/North White streets in Fort Mill, East White/Firetower Road/East Main Street in Rock Hill, along with Celanese Road intersections at India Hook and Riverview roads, will cost more than $17 million.
None of those projects will be complete until mid- to late 2019, and some won’t go out for construction bids until at least 2020.
RFATS director David Hooper said he and other planners rolled out a lengthy list of recommended improvements along the I-77 corridor.
“The things we’re talking about today aren’t going to happen for 10 years,” he said.
Savage wants something that shows more immediate progress.
“We have to work harder on the setting of expectations,” Savage said. “It would help (the public) see progress that they just don’t see yet.”
In the meantime
Domtar has requested traffic light timing changes near Kingsley. Another recommended option is to eliminate left turns near the center.
“We are asking them if they can speed up the interchange (work) there,” Martin said. “We’re also asking them to do some immediate things to help the traffic.”
Closing left turns, except at traffic signals, would prevent blocking small intersections and backing up traffic to the interstate, Martin said.
“Development is not going to stop,” Martin said. “There’s going to be more growth. There’s going to be more people working at businesses and on the road.”
The time it takes for projects to go from planned to completion concerns Martin.
For example, the diverging diamond interchange at I-77 and Gold Hill Road will be the first of its kind in South Carolina. Most of that money was allocated from the last Pennies referendum, in 2011. Pennies for Progress, the voter approved one-cent sales tax for roadwork in York County, shows the project’s construction bids will start in March. Construction is expected to last into 2020.
“It’s hard for us to believe that, when the work hasn’t even begun on the other interchange,” Martin said of the Kingsley site.
Her company has been in the area two decades and has witnessed the county’s growth, and contributed to it. She said Kingsley has “become a unique engine of high-wage job growth.”
“Since becoming the anchor resident at Kingsley, we have promoted the location to potential corporate tenants,” Martin said. “We were confident in promises made by state and local officials that public roadway improvements would be made and that infrastructure improvements would keep pace with economic development.”
Companies in and around Kingsley, she said, have done their part.
“We have fulfilled our investment and hiring commitments, and are respectfully requesting that our partners in government fulfill their obligations,” Martin said.