LeRoy Bolton, a lifelong resident of the Arthurtown neighborhood, said the dangers of merely driving out of his low-income neighborhood has taken the life of one of his brothers and injured another.
“There are days you can’t get out. You’re virtually a prisoner in your own community,” Bolton said of trying to pull onto Bluff Road, a thoroughfare that’s thick with traffic. By his recollection, Bluff Road drivers have claimed at least 10 of his neighbors’ lives.
A faded drumbeat is finding renewed support: Install traffic lights on key feeder streets into the Arthurtown and Little Camden neighborhoods where residents have no other way out but along Bluff Road and Shop Road, respectively.
Those roads carry drivers from south of the capital city and the I-77 beltway to Columbia’s downtown core. Bluff and Shop become parking lots filled with frustrated or inebriated motorists as many as eight times each University of South Carolina football season and for 10 days during the annual State Fair. The fairgrounds and USC’s Williams-Brice Stadium are a little more than a half-mile away.
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But the traffic has become problematic more often recently because of the construction of five student housing complexes in the area, putting even more cars on the roads.
Both corridors are in line for widening to four lanes plus medians with turning lanes. But officials are not planning to install traffic lights at entraceways to either neighborhood, said David Beatty, who oversees the team that’s doing the construction work that’s months from starting.
An examination of the traffic volume and the number of collisions along both routes do not meet the state Transportation Department’s standards to install traffic lights, Beatty said.
Still, morning and afternoon rush hours have become worse since college students moved into resort-style housing complexes off Bluff and Shop roads during the past decade. Some complexes offer students tanning stations, putting greens, fitness centers and other amenities.
“It has increased a whole lot. It controls your lifestyle,” said Alonzo Brown, a 70-year-old Vietnam vet, said of Shop Road traffic congestion.
“Sometimes you have to put in around 15 minutes” waiting for a break in the flow of cars, said Walter Jackson, 81, and head of the Little Camden neighborhood association. “I try to pull out by that store there. And I sit, sit, sit.”
Students also clog roads inside the neighborhoods because they use those streets as alternative routes to get onto Bluff or Shop, said Brown and Jackson and another Little Camden friend, Ernest Green, as they talked last week under the shade of a covered picnic area that fronts Shop.
“It’s a daily issue. There are days you can’t get out,” Bolton said, echoing his Little Camden neighbors who face the same problem as Arthurtown residents. “But it’s worse for football games and the fair.”
Green, 69, fantasizes about his best solution. “Is there is some kind of way to pick up that stadium and drop it somewhere else? That’s the way to stop it.”
Football crowds bring back sour childhood memories for Charles Epps, who grew up in the area and now lives in the nearby Starlight subdivision. “We were afraid to hang out at Shop Road because people threw footballs at us,” said Epps, now a minister.
Bolton said football games forced him to leave a couple of hours early to get to his job at the Eastman Chemical Co. plant near the Lexington County town of Gaston. “You catch the devil getting out (onto Bluff),” he said. Back then, I-77 had not been built and travel time to work took much longer.
Bolton said he would sit in a plant break room until his shift began.
Many resident of Arthurtown, Little Camden and the nearby Washington Park and Taylors neighborhoods are older and cannot pull into the flow of traffic as quickly as younger drivers, Brown said.
If Bluff and Shop are widened as planned, the challenge would be worse. “You’re going to need a traffic light because you’ll have a lot of (neighborhood) children crossing the road” and more lanes of traffic to pull across, Brown said.
Residents of both neighborhoods said they have long felt they are being slighted.
J.T. McLawhorn, head of the the Urban League, agrees.
“We have used the penny sales tax for all kinds of things – we’ve got a (pedestrian) bridge at the zoo and a (Finlay Park) tunnel at Arsenal Hill,” McLawhorn said.
“We’re talking about safety for a community,” he said. “(Traffic lights) should have been included in the (widening) design. What is clear is that they ... have not connected with the stakeholders there.”
It took years to get one traffic light installed at Blair and Bluff, Bolton said. The now 7-year-old light, installed to help with increased traffic caused by The Retreat student housing complex, improved the access problem for that part of Bluff.
“We were lobbying for a light for a long time,” Bolton said. “I was so glad we got it.”
During bumper-to-bumper game traffic, state troopers are stationed at Shop and Beltline Boulevard and Shop at Idlewilde Boulevard, but those sites leapfrog from the stadium over the Little Camden neighborhood.
“The Highway Patrol wouldn’t stop, and they’d go on by like they didn’t see you,” Jackson said.
Green, 69, looks to another explanation.
“I don’t like putting everything on race, but there’s nothing down here but black folks,” he said.
Green knows that moving the USC stadium is impossible, so traffic lights are a good start. “A little bit of help is better than none,” he said.