Hate sitting in York County traffic now? Here's how bad it could get

Traffic on I-77 looking south toward exits 82 C, B and A from the Sutton Road exit.
Traffic on I-77 looking south toward exits 82 C, B and A from the Sutton Road exit.

Thinking that York County traffic is as bad as it can get? Just wait.

"While it may be hard to believe, not all the congestion we're going to see is already with us," Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study administrator David Hooper told York County Council on Monday night. "There's more coming."

Hooper offered data and took questions, but one slide summed up what York County drivers have coming.

"This is a transformation in terms of the driver experience," Hooper said.

Traffic models show, that as of 2015, several major roadways — S.C. 49 in Lake Wylie, Celanese in Rock Hill, parts of Gold Hill Road near Tega Cay, the Carowinds area, parts of Fort Mill Parkway in Fort Mill — are covered in red lines that show overcrowded roads.

Other areas, even I-77 and many connectors, are at least a level or two better.

"You see severe congestion over in Lake Wylie on 49, you see congestion on Celanese leading into I-77," Hooper said. "You see it there on (U.S.) 21."

Hooper also points to a 2045 projection. That map runs red. Almost all of I-77 is red, as is the full bypass around Fort Mill, much of Lake Wylie and Rock Hill and most of Tega Cay.

That means the worst traffic spots in York County now, will be the new normal in York County in the coming decades.

Traffic models show the next 30 years will bring much more traffic to York County.

"When we look at those areas that have not developed, and are expected to develop, we look at the types of developments that are envisioned and the projected growth in population, you're going to see very real challenges on all our major arterial roadways," Hooper said.

Why it's happening

There aren't any surprises as to why traffic is getting worse.

"If you've got an economically dynamic, robust environment, people want to be associated with that area," he said. "They want to live there. But there are operational consequences."

Not surprisingly, most red lines on the new map are in areas where homes and businesses are popping up most frequently.

"Particularly in Lake Wylie, is one area," Hooper said. "Tega Cay and Fort Mill, just to give you a reference point, over the next 10 years you're projected to grow at north of 50 percent from where you are today. Just over the next 10 years. Ten years after that, you are supposed to be in the low double digits."

A transportation system is "a reflection of the collective land use decisions in any area," Hooper said, and the driver experience follows a path paved by those decisions.

"How we structure land uses directly impacts the efficiency of the system and the experience drivers have," he said.

Can we fix it?

RFATS is studying connector roads. Roads like Sutton and Dam in the Fort Mill/Tega Cay area, Reservation and George Dunn in Rock Hill, Neelys Creek in York and others are designed to channel traffic from homes to major road arteries. They are roads that may offer some solution to the coming traffic.

More connector roads, creating more of a grid look than the common cul-de-sac patterns on the ground now, are needed on the front end of land use planning decisions, Hooper said.

"For an area that has the growth pressures that we're facing, this will take on increased importance," he said.

The problem is, York County isn't starting from scratch. The last 50 or 60 years of major development have taken up considerable space.

"You can't change that," Hooper said. "You can't undo it. We don't have a blank painter's canvas where we get a clean slate. We have to take the built environment as it is, and then position it to respond to what we see is coming."

Several major connections in York County's road system are needed. Ideas came through the connector road study. Some, maybe all, may never happen.

"I have no illusions about these types of projects," Hooper said. "These are not easy. They are involved, but we wanted to ask the question."

Possibilities include an interstate flyover, allowing drivers on Pleasant Road to skip Carowinds traffic.

Development of Kingsley and the former Knights Stadium property in Fort Mill could warrant a new I-77 interchange in the Coltharp Road area. Then there's the long-debated idea of another bridge from Rock Hill to Fort Mill.

None of those options are easy. The cost would be high, even without land use concerns like the Anne Springs Close Greenway property in the Coltharp area, or the residential construction in Fort Mill, where a bridge could have crossed from Celanese in Rock Hill to Sutton in Fort Mill.

A new bridge keeps coming up because models show another river crossing is needed apart from S.C. 49 in Lake Wylie and U.S. 21 between Fort Mill and Rock Hill, in addition to I-77.

"We're missing a link in the network," Hooper said.

Leaders on the Fort Mill side don't want it, fearing it would tie up decades of federal road money while moving the Celanese traffic problem onto the Fort Mill side of the river.

"I don't know that there is an easy answer here," Hooper said.

Other traffic options could help, from "traffic calming" alignments to slow down cars in some areas in hopes they'll take alternate routes, to software that would allow traffic signals to adjust to conditions in real time.

But new or expanded roads have to be part of the puzzle.

Will we fix it?

If fixing future traffic problems were as easy as recognizing them, the vote wouldn't take long. Public officials aren't facing that type of vote.

Getting rid of the cul-de-sac model for more inner-neighborhood connections to stores and other destinations would keep some drivers off major arterial roads. A connecting road could bring more traffic than one ending in a cul-de-sac.

"The thing you hear from the public, at least in that neighborhood, is they don't want that traffic coming through their neighborhood or on their street," said Councilman Robert Winkler.

Councilman Michael Johnson agrees.

"That's the number one phone call I get," he said. "Carowoods. I mean I could roll through. Name it, in Regent Park. People do not like when you're cutting through their neighborhood. They lose their minds."

Johnson believes there are ways to improve. Even something relatively small, like having new homes turned away from the more trafficked roads to quiet traffic where families and children spend the most time. Solutions, Johnson said, that may work in areas where home and businesses aren't already standing.

"This is a lesson that might fix York, when my growth gets to you," Johnson said.

Councilwoman Allison Love, who represents Lake Wylie and Clover, has similar concerns to Johnson representing high-growth parts of Fort Mill and Tega Cay. Love doesn't have to wait until 2045 to be concerned.

"In the next 30 years that doesn't look like it shows it getting much worse," Love said of S.C. 49, a red line on both the current and future modeling maps. "That needs to be maybe flashing at this point."

Love wants to know what already failing roadways are supposed to do.

"At what point do we say we've already got an issue here?" she said. "We're already as bad as it gets."

Yet, like overall county traffic, something worse could be coming.

"(S.C.) 49 is severe congestion today," Johnson said. "It will be severe congestion in 2045. But look at the roads around 49, and how they change from traffic flowing adequately now to either severe or moderate (traffic) over that time."

A drive for change

With a relatively few roads red on the model now, Councilwoman Christi Cox showed a little surprise that conditions weren't worse already. Non-red roads on the map aren't all smooth sailing.

"That's based upon the model, not what the public thinks," Cox said. "That's based upon the model that's created."

Hooper agreed, saying a wreck or re-route on any given day can turn most any major road red. The model is based on typical conditions for what traffic roads are designed to handle.

The county is looking into impact fees - fees on new development to cover the cost of growth - which could provide some new revenue to help pay for some growth-related issues but likely not roads. The county could put higher housing density in certain places, and lower in others, to manage traffic.

County leaders are working now on a thoroughfare plan to address the road network amid coming needs.

"Right now we can kind of loosely point back to a 2045 plan that says, well, we really do need to do these things," said assistant county manager Andy Merriman. "With a thoroughfare plan that we've been working, will give us that hammer that's needed."

Leaders agree there aren't easy or simple answers. They know one answer won't do.