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‘These will not be popular’: Why Rock Hill, Fort Mill road fixes may happen anyway

RFATS on unpopular road fix options

RFATS in Rock Hill, South Carolina discussion on unpopular road fixes. Closing roads and turn lanes are included.
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RFATS in Rock Hill, South Carolina discussion on unpopular road fixes. Closing roads and turn lanes are included.

Folks aren’t going to like all the short-term traffic fixes in York County. Traffic experts say there’s a case for doing them anyway.

The Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study announced a list of needed improvements in November. They range from ongoing projects nearly finished, to regional mass transportation that could take decades. The group narrowed in on the stretch of I-77 from Celanese Road in Rock Hill to the state line at Carowinds.

“We’re focused on the interchanges,” said David Hooper, RFATS director. “We’re focused on all the demand that’s coming down the corridors, and they’re all channeling to the same place, doing the same thing, Monday through Friday.”

Short-term improvements include ongoing I-77 interchange reconfiguration at both the S.C. 160 and Gold Hill Road exits. They include improved traffic signal timing at Gold Hill, S.C. 160 and Cherry Road. Widening U.S. 21 to five lanes made the list.

As did divided highway setups from Munn to Pleasant roads on S.C. 160 in Fort Mill, and on Celanese Road from U.S. 21 to Automall Parkway in Rock Hill. Taking out left turns at Market Street in front of Baxter, and not far down the road at Kingsley Park Drive, round out the recommendations.

Left turns into Kingsley Park Drive and Baxter create high numbers of wrecks, Hooper told the RFATS policy committee Jan. 25, with increases expected as community growth puts more demand on the corridor. Disallowing left turns, he told the group, would help.

“We make these recommendations fully aware that these will not be popular by those immediately affected,” Hooper said. “But if we’re looking at the overall operational dynamic along the corridor and the need to improve safety...these are two short-term things that can and should be done.”

Hooper wouldn’t expect the concrete divider from Munn Road all the way down to Pleasant to win his group any popularity contests either. Same for the concrete divider proposed on Celanese in Rock Hill.

”Again, I don’t see this as being terribly popular,” Hooper said. “These types of things never are.”

The idea with the concrete dividers is to take out left turns causing people to sit and wait. They would be a temporary fix as larger interchange configuration work — which could take years — progresses.

“We need to have something that is decisive, that will be effective and that will begin to recalibrate people’s expectations as they move down the corridors,” Hooper said. “This is one thing that can accomplish all of those, again, faster than a traditional project and of course at much lower cost.”

Road widening is another area where Hooper hears it from residents. Only a few major arterial roads remain in need of widening, due to RFATS and Pennies for Progress work the past two decades. Yet where widening could help, not everyone wants it.

Hooper said the top need is widening U.S. 21 to five lanes from S.C. 160 to Sutton Road.

“At the very least, this should rank very, very high — in my estimation — in the subsequent Pennies referendum,” Hooper said, referencing the cent sales tax for road work program through York County. “That should be very high on the list.”

On the other side of U.S. 21, on Sutton Road from Sixth Baxter down, needs widening and should rank almost as high among priorities.

“In our study area, these are the two principal targeted widening projects that remain,” Hooper said.

The only remaining stretch to be widened that hasn’t seen some sort of RFATS or Pennies improvement is the western side of I-77 from the state line down, including Pleasant Road from Carowinds to Gold Hill Road and from Gold Hill to S.C. 160.

“There are a number of neighborhoods that are not supportive, is a euphemistic way to put it,” Hooper said. “They do not want to see this area widened.”

Opposition there stems, he said, from the idea if someone builds it, they will come.

“The working logic is if you don’t widen it, they can’t come,” Hooper said. “And they feel strongly about that.”

Even knowing there likely will be grumbling from the community, road experts are moving forward. The South Carolina Department of Transportation sent out a letter in November stating it would study the Kingsley area, and officials already have met with business leaders there. The study wrapped up Jan. 20 and another meeting with business leaders could come any day.

“We do have that study completed and it has a lot of the same recommendations,” said Jason Johnston, SCDOT district administrator.

Taking the left turn out at Kingsley would impact large businesses like Domtar, LPL Financial and Lash Group, Johnston said, but also anyone who drives in the area. A public meeting would come before any left turn would be removed, a fix that could come in a matter of weeks rather than months or years.

“It’s popular by some and not popular by others,” Johnston said. “So we’re choosing to be transparent on the front end, rather than do things and take a beating on the back end.”

Mayor Guynn Savage in Fort Mill told the RFATS committee she passed three wrecks in a week at the left turns at Kingsley and Baxter. She hears about the Kingsley site routinely.

“There’s interest, because we’re getting day-to-day contacts,” she said. “And they’re eager just to hear something.”

While many may not like changes, experts say, others are looking for some type of safety or wait time improvement.

“It is a safety issue,” Savage said.

While the regional group eyes various fixes, leaders also look toward better ways of avoiding similar problems as the area grows. Baxter is in unincorporated York County. Kingsley is in Fort Mill. Both have similar issues with the left turns.

Savage pointed to a recent decision in Fort Mill to require a detailed traffic study with any development proposal coming to the town for decision, not just the larger ones, as progress.

“It seems like we should have known that years ago, to do that,” Savage said. “For some reason we didn’t. We do now.”

Johnston said problem areas now can help the region. His department wasn’t in favor of the left at Kingsley when road improvements for that development were submitted. Seeing the result may have leaders better heeding the advice of traffic and safety engineers.

“It’s a learning opportunity for all of us,” Johnston said.

While decisions haven’t been made on the recommendations yet, leaders point to safety and overall traffic flow as a strong case for projects, even when there may be some public discontent with them.

“This location is not safe,” Johnston said of the Kingsley site. “It’s not ideal for the volume of traffic that’s turning in and out of it.”

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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