Do you hate driving on S.C. 160? This is why road improvements take longer

Thousands of drivers in this area cross county and state lines every day. Plans for work done on the roads that carry them can be trickier.

Road experts face challenges in how they handle projects. Different jurisdictions may have different approvals, money sources, road priorities and schedules.

“We can only spend money in York County,” said Patrick Hamilton, director of the county’s Pennies for Progress program.

Pennies is the one-cent sales tax voters have approved four times since 1997. The money pays for road widening, intersection reconfiguration, and new roads. The most recent Pennies vote, in 2017, added resurfacing.

The aim is a smoother drive for the almost 275,000 people living in York County. Yet how far some improvements go can depend on other governing bodies.

Crossing the line

Steele Creek is the area of Mecklenburg County, N.C., between Tega Cay, Carowinds and Lake Wylie in South Carolina. Steele Creek faces many of the same growth pressures — increased traffic, strain on infrastructure, constant new residential development — seen in those neighboring communities.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation plans to widen and improve N.C. 160 -- one of the main headache traffic areas running through Steele Creek, N.C. Public hearings are Aug. 19 and 21.

The online public comment section for the widening project reads like many other social media posts, council meeting minutes and other public discussions common to the fast-growing areas of York County.

They describe “painful” construction in an area “enduring explosive population growth.” One calls for a freeze on new construction amid “a bumper to bumper nightmare.”

“This needs to happen sooner,” one comment reads. “The traffic is not only horrendous, it’s dangerous. In fact, this may be a huge decision for my family to move across state lines.”

Comments are similar on the Steele Creek Residents Association pages. That group has for years cited N.C. 160 as a major traffic issue, as drivers go from the state line near Tega Cay up past the RiverGate shopping center, toward I-485.

The new work in North Carolina will run from the state line to I-485. Two lanes of traffic will run each way with a concrete median up to 30 feet wide. Each direction will have a 12-foot pedestrian path. At least four types of intersections limiting or eliminating left turns have been studied.

The $62.6 million project should start construction in 2024.

Linking together

Just on the South Carolina side at S.C. 160 West, recent improvements are easing traffic flow. Pennies for Progress paid almost $10 million to widen the highway from U.S. 21 to Gold Hill Road. Intersection improvements came at S.C. 160 and Gold Hill. Added lane capacity improved the left turn at Zoar Road.

A more than $13 million widening project is underway from Zoar Road to the state line.

Road planners from both states see the same needs, but they don’t want a large widening project on one side that grinds traffic to a halt when it bottlenecks to a narrower road.

“We do coordinate with North Carolina on our projects,” Hamilton said. “At the beginning of the 160 West project, we reached out to NCDOT to see if they had any plans to widen their portion of 160, which they said they did not. Well, in 2016 they reached back out to us and said they were beginning to look at their portion, so we sent them our plans for them to tie into.

“It’s not necessarily an ongoing conversation but when we have a project that will tie into North Carolina, we reach out to them at the beginning to give them a heads up and see if they have anything planned on their end.”

Navigating the map

Pennies for Progress alone has 10 past or ongoing projects that run to a state or county line. Most are highways to the north and east.

The S.C. 160 West project crosses into Mecklenburg County, as does the $40 million widening of U.S. 21 North and S.C. 51 work near Carowinds. The $37.8 million widening of S.C. 274 and Pole Branch Road in Lake Wylie runs to the Gaston County, N.C., line. A $4.8 million widening of S.C. 160 East goes from Springfield Parkway to the Lancaster County line, and the already completed $46.7 million S.C. 5 widening stretched from Alexander Highway to the Cherokee County line.

Resurfacing of Grandview, Love and Kendrick roads runs to the Gaston County line. Work on Regent Parkway hits Lancaster County, and Love Street/Chappell Road work goes to the Chester County line.

The Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study shows even more projects. RFATS is a planning group designated to spend federal transportation money for an area including Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Lake Wylie and Indian Land. RFATS works with five other metropolitan and rural planning organizations in the Charlotte area through the Charlotte Regional Alliance for Transportation.

That alliance also works with both state road agencies, the Federal Highway Administration and Charlotte Department of Transportation.

“This group has been in place for roughly 15 years and meets on a regular basis, with a particular emphasis on ensuring effective coordination on a broad range of planning areas associated with the transportation planning process,” said David Hooper, RFATS director.

An interactive map of area projects shows work ranging from under construction to unfunded, some many years from possible construction.

The map shows a concept for Dave Lyle Boulevard extension crossing from York into Lancaster County, and almost into North Carolina. It shows a more than $326 million widening of I-77 from six to 10 lanes on the North Carolina side, aiming for 2035. Smaller projects stop at the borders, like Johnston Road widening to the east and Union Road to the north.

The only project on that RFATS map that shows planned work on both sides of the state line is S.C. 160.

Making it work

For many drivers, it doesn’t much matter day-to-day which side of a state line construction sits. The U.S. Census Bureau reports almost 37% of workers who live in York County work outside the state. Another 5% work in South Carolina, but outside York County. Those rates have been fairly steady dating back to at least 2005.

Less than half of Lancaster County residents who work, do so in Lancaster County. About 29% work outside South Carolina and 22% work in another in-state county. Among workers, almost 89% of Chester County residents work in the state. It’s split about even among in-county and different county workers.

Almost 43% of workers living in York County spend a half-hour or more getting to work each day. In Lancaster and Chester counties it’s 47%. In the tri-county area, almost 12,500 workers commute an hour or more.

For road planners, keeping cars moving is about drivers, but also about industry and freight movement, better air quality, and regional connection. All those factors and others have to be broadly compatible, Hooper said, even when crossing lines.

“So that the transportation network produces the right operational outcomes – both for drivers as well as sustained economic vibrancy,” he said.

Want to know more?

Public meetings on the N.C. 160 widening are 4-7 p.m. The Aug. 19 meeting is at Kennedy Middle School, 4000 Gallant Lane in Charlotte. The Aug. 21 meeting is at Southwest Middle School, 13624 Steele Creek Road in Charlotte.

Project maps and other information, including an opportunity for public comment, are available online at publicinput.com/SteeleCreek-Widening.

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