State Fair

USC football, SC State Fair, forecast. Saturday in Columbia sets up for heavy traffic

There’s a lot going on in Columbia on Saturday.

Between the University of South Carolina football team’s game against the Florida Gators and the South Carolina State Fair, more than 100,000 people are expected to descend upon the area split by George Rogers Boulevard.

Both events could provide fans and fair-goers hours of entertainment, but they will create some challenges.

Specifically, traffic is expected to be congested starting in the morning without letting up much as the day turns to night.

And there is the issue of where all the cars clogging the roads will come to rest, as parking will be at a premium throughout Saturday.

“Plan early and leave early,” South Carolina Highway Patrol Master Trooper David Jones implored visitors during an interview with The State. “We want motorists to be prepared because traffic becomes extremely congested.”

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South Carolina Highway Patrol

Regardless of team loyalty, everyone coming to Columbia could have their travel plans further slowed by the weather. The forecast calls for breezy weather — wind gusts blowing at 33 mph are possible — and a 40 percent chance of rain Saturday, according to the National Weather Service office in Columbia.

And trains rolling through downtown Columbia could also add to traffic delays, Jones warned.

“No one should be surprised if they come and experience traffic,” Matt La Schuma, the state fair’s security and parking director, said in an interview with The State. He added this will be the 28th time in the past 35 years that a USC home game has fallen on a Saturday of the fair.

Roads could get jammed early, as the fair opens at 10 a.m., and the football game will kick off around noon.

To make things more challenging, people attending the game and the fair will be competing for the same parking spots at the fairgrounds.

Spots normally used for football fans who pay to leave their car and potentially tailgate at the fairgrounds parking lot will not be reserved this Saturday.

Instead, $5 spots will be available on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 9 a.m., according to Jones.

While that is a discount rate compared to the $40 charge for other USC home games, La Schuma said there will be some restrictions from what is normally allowed. Tailgating will be permitted, but tents and grills will not be allowed, along with anything else that might block the roads.

Drivers should enter through Gate 6 along George Rogers Boulevard — the Assembly Street side of the fairgrounds — or Gate 10 along Bluff Road, according to La Schuma, who added the lot will open at 9 a.m. on the dot.

In a similar situation in 2016, Jones of the Highway Patrol said that lot was full about an hour after it opened, and drivers unable to park at the fairgrounds were left slowly circling the area in search of parking.

“Pack your patience,” Jones said.

The South Carolina State Fair is up and going with all the food and fun to enjoy. As in past years, there is a football game that coincides with the fair and parking will be premium with traffic heavy. 10/15/15 Tim Dominick

To help keep vehicles moving before the game, some lanes will be reversed on Bluff Road, Assembly Street, George Rogers Boulevard and parts of Rosewood Drive to flow only toward Williams-Brice Stadium, according to the Highway Patrol.

Sometime around the third quarter, those lanes will be reversed to help drivers leave the stadium at the end of the game, which is normal for USC game days.

But that will create significant delays for anyone trying to get to the state fair in the afternoon.

Anyone looking to attend the state fair at that time will need to be patient, as Jones said it will be difficult to get to the fair for several hours after the game ends.

And there is no guarantee the spots occupied by football fans will empty out right away, as many could go to the fair, or continue to congregate after the game, which is common on Saturdays when the Gamecocks play.

“It’s going to be jam packed with people. It will be busy and hectic,” La Schuma said.

South Carolina fans watch the game against Texas A&M at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Saturday, October 13, 2018. The SC State Fair was happening across the street. Tim Dominick

In an effort to stave off problems, about 20 extra troopers will be working in the area Saturday, according to Jones.

That will also be the case at the state fair, where the Richland County Sheriff’s Department plans to have more deputies on duty than the typical day at the state fair, or Gamecocks home game.

“There’s a huge law enforcement presence for a normal game day. That will be even larger with the fair,” Major Harry Polis said in an interview with The State. “We know it’s going to be busy, so we’ll have a massive number of deputies working.”

The influx of deputies won’t be doing anything unusual, there will just be more of them performing standard crowd control, according to Polis. That includes providing security at the state fair and searching for weapons with metal detectors and potential bag inspections.

Other law enforcement agencies patrolling the area around the stadium and fair will include the Columbia Police Department and USC Police.

Polis warned fair-goers a large turnout could result in longer waits to get through the entrance. That could include ticket holders to the football game. For the first two hours the state fair is open Saturday, anyone with a valid ticket to the USC-Florida game will be admitted for free, fair spokesman Bertram Rantin said.

Once the game kicks off, football fans will have to pay the same admission as all others attending the state fair.

Visitors will be admitted from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., but the fair isn’t scheduled to close until midnight, officials said.

That was not the case last Saturday, as the state fair closed early and some patrons suffered minor injuries after waves of fair-goers ran for the exits because of rumors of gunfire, The State reported. Numerous people fell and some scaled fences to get away from the scene.

“It caused mass chaos and significant safety issues for the public,” Polis said.

Despite multiple witness claims of gunfire, the sheriff’s department said there was no evidence of a shooting.

The incident caused a “disruption and ... anxiety for our patrons,” South Carolina State Fair general manager Nancy Smith said in a news release. “We will remain diligent in our efforts to maintain the highest customer safety standards that fair-goers have become accustomed to.”

There have been no significant safety issues at the state fair since last Saturday, according to Polis.

“We hope it doesn’t happen again and will do everything we can to prevent it,” Polis said of the melee. “We hope people come to the fair and enjoy themselves. We just ask them to be patient.”

“It will be a busy weekend in Columbia,” USC officials said.

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Noah Feit is a Real Time reporter with The State focused on breaking news, public safety and trending news. The award-winning journalist has worked for multiple newspapers since starting his career in 1999.