Anyone looking for a magic fix for I-77 area traffic will come up short.
“There isn’t one simple project, one magic project, that’s going to fix all this,” said Mark Pleasant, consultant with Columbia-based engineering firm WSP USA.
Pleasant works with the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study, which recently recommended improvements for I-77 arterial roads from the North Carolina border to Celanese Road in Rock Hill. The area includes roads such as Gold Hill, Pleasant and Sutton roads along with S.C. 160, U.S. 21 and Carowinds Boulevard in Fort Mill. The area also includes Celanese, Cherry and Celriver roads in Rock Hill.
RFATS projects further community growth and worsening traffic in coming decades. RFATS Director David Hooper said up to 50 percent community growth could come to the area in the next decade.
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By 2045, RFATS projects traffic along all those interchanges and feeder roads will resemble what now is the worst traffic areas. Traditional approaches, mainly road widening, won’t change that outlook.
“Whatever the solution is, it would be something different,” Pleasant said.
Many — displaced left turns, restricted crossings, superstreets — involve limiting left turns. Converting or combining driveways could improve flow. Widening still has its place. So do signal timing changes, grade separation, mass transit and drivers simply leaving earlier.
York County roads are different, and one size won’t fit all. Different numbers of existing lanes, traffic patterns, availability of right-of-way and other issues will dictate what type of improvement can help, and where.
Widening Sutton Road and U.S. 21, from S.C. 160 to the Catawba River, to five lanes would help, Hooper said. But other connections already have five lanes.
“There’s no more significant widening that can be done,” Hooper said.
Grade separation, or one road raised above another at the intersection, is working now at Anderson Road and Dave Lyle Boulevard in Rock Hill. That option is limited, because there’s not enough available land and it could cost $15-$40 million.
Other options don’t appear likely.
A third bridge across the Catawba River, between Rock Hill and Fort Mill, generated years of debate and repeated votes against the idea by the RFATS committee. The $60-$95 million price tag and traffic impact on Fort Mill are reasons why.
A recent idea emerged for a new one-way southbound ramp from I-77 to Mount Gallant Road in Rock Hill. The RFATS study found it would take about 3,000 vehicles per day off the busy Celanese interchange. At $20 million or more, that idea doesn’t doesn’t offer enough relief to justify building it.
Pleasant said there are fewer cases where traditional improvements would work. That’s why the recommended plan offers an array of options, and the recommended projects aren’t all funded or detailed.
“(I-77 is) obviously a backbone for this region,” Pleasant said.
Road concerns spring from as many directions as there are roads feeding the interstate. The interstate itself is a concern, particularly at the Catawba River bridge.
“The potholes are terrifying right now,” said Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage.
The online database, bridgereports.com, compiles information from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration National Bridge Inventory. That site shows the I-77 bridge constructed in 1973 was reconstructed in 2000. The bridge was expanded to five lanes in 2006, but some of the driving surface is original.
Repairs, sometimes emergency work, has occurred several times. Work was done in 2015 and 2013 after potholes opened.
Jason Johnston, administrator of the seven-county South Carolina Department of Transportation district, where the bridge sits, called the bridge a burden and liability for his department as it deteriorates without scheduled improvements. Southbound lanes are in worse shape than northbound.
The transportation department took bids on a deck resurfacing. The lowest came in $3 million higher than the estimate.
The department likely will ask for bids again this winter. Because summer is peak interstate travel season, work wouldn’t begin until fall 2019. The bridge could use a complete surface replacement, Johnston said, but that work would take six months. His department likely would look for smaller fixes in problem areas.
“The public can’t take six months of detours,” Johnston said.
The short term
Short term is a relative term with roadwork.
The newest recommendations aren’t likely to open to traffic for a decade or more, Hooper said. Projects within the recommendation list set to open sooner were first planned that long ago.
The diverging diamond interchange at I-77 and Gold Hill Road already is in development, as is the $19 million interchange at S.C. 160. The Gold Hill Road interchange should bid for construction this spring. The S.C. 160 interchange could start construction in 2022 and finish by 2024.
RFATS also recommends part of that U.S. 21 widening to five lanes, from S.C. 160 to S.C. 51, and taking away left turns on S.C. 160 at Market Street in Baxter and into Kingsley. The recommendation also includes dividing S.C. 160 from Munn to Pleasant Roads.
A divided highway along Celanese is part of short-term planning, from U.S. 21 to Automall Parkway.
The mid term
Projects further down the time line, at least five years out, include the unfunded but estimated $18 million Celanese and Cherry interchange on I-77, finishing that U.S. 21 widening from S.C. 160 to the river, widening Sutton to five lanes from U.S. 21 to Sixth Baxter Crossing and intersection improvements at Celanese and Riverchase Boulevard.
A $3.6 million intersection improvement at Celanese, Riverchase and Rivervew roads is in design now. The project is one of five major intersections DOT has on its plate. Several fall in the I-77 corridor study. Completion ranges from late next year to several years from now.
The long term
Future improvements include some form of rapid transit and perhaps a new exit off I-77 at Coltharp Road, near Kingsley. That area is within a mile of other exits, but could need a way off I-77 if Kingsley and the nearby Southbridge commercial development build up the way planners expect.
Parts of Celanese, like at India Hook Road, could become a superstreet with drivers heading past intersections, turning around and taking a right to make what today would be a left turn. Superstreet designs add 20 percent capacity on roads compared to traditional intersections, planners say.
Either fully displaced left turns — a similar setup to superstreets — or grade separation could happen at Mount Gallant and Celanese.
Making a change
RFATS is a major player in area road funding, but there are others. RFATS distributes federal money. The state transportation department has more than a dozen projects at varying levels of completion, plus that many more bridge replacements in the works. Pennies for Progress is a voter-approved cent sales tax in York County for road work. The transportation department partners with Pennies and RFATS to complete work.
The most recent Pennies referendum came last year. It projects to generate $278 million in seven years. The dozens of projects on that ballot include many in the I-77 corridor and some on the RFATS recommendation list, like U.S. 21 widening and turn lanes at the Celanese interchange.