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1 million in the Columbia area? Expect it by 2035, report says

Congestion is increasing on many roads in the Columbia area.
Congestion is increasing on many roads in the Columbia area. File photograph

The Midlands will be welcoming a lot more neighbors in the coming years, with the Columbia area’s population expected to hit 1 million by 2035 and double today’s number by 2050.

The combined population of Lexington and Richland counties will be 1 million in 20 years, an increase of 40 percent from today, according to newly released estimates from the Central Midlands Council of Governments.

Reaching that benchmark will be a brief stop en route to 1.3 million residents in the area by 2050, nearly double the current population, the report says.

“That’s a lot of growth to handle in such a short period,” Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall said. “It’s going to demand a lot more services.”

The forecast by the regional planning agency was developed to help leaders of local communities prepare for what’s coming.

Dealing with the influx is going to increase the strain of keeping pace, particularly with roads not designed to handle extra traffic, as more homes and stores sprout farther from existing cities and towns, some officials said.

“New building will put more stress on a (road) system already overused,” Lexington County Council chairman Todd Cullum of Cayce said.

And more homes will mean less farmland and wooded areas – and more schools, hospitals, grocery stores, ball fields and downtown high-rises.

“Those numbers put a real face on the opportunities and challenges that metropolitan areas face,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “These decisions as to how we’re going to invest in roads, water, sewer and infrastructure and the arts, how we invest in being a 21st century city, it adds a level of gravity to all these issues we’re discussing.”

The latest population forecast underscores the Midlands’ efforts to ease bumper-to-bumper traffic for suburban commuters, the bulk of whom work in downtown Columbia.

State transportation officials are developing a $1.5 billion package of improvements to ease the bottleneck where I-20, I-26 and I-126 meet, an intersection many motorists call “Malfunction Junction.” Those renovations could take as long as 10 years to complete.

Richland and Lexington counties each are expected to add about the same number of residents by 2050 – about 290,000 more than today. But Lexington will remain smaller in population than neighboring Richland, the forecast says.

The Blythewood area and the town of Lexington are likely to grow mightily, along with the number of people living in downtown Columbia and on Lake Murray.

Besides overcrowded roads, Lexington County is struggling to add deputies, firefighters, ambulance crews and 911 dispatchers to cope with steady growth. County population today is estimated at 289,000, a 10 percent increase since the last census in 2010. The latest estimate puts its population in 2050 at 581,135, more than double the current total.

Much of the growth forecast is in the center of the 758-square-mile county, home of top-rated Lexington 1 schools. Educators there are dealing with a yearly enrollment increase of 500 students, equaling a new elementary school.

Richland County will become home to 706,818 in 2050, compared with nearly 420,000 today, the report said. The county’s population was nearly 385,000 in the 2010 census. The 757-square-mile county is home to the State House and related agencies, the University of South Carolina and smaller colleges and Fort Jackson, all in Columbia.

What’s ahead is larger than some officials expected.

The new population forecast “is going to factor into our planning, certainly,” Richland 2 school spokeswoman Libby Roof said. “If our growth trajectory is going to be pushed faster, we’re going to have to make some adjustments.”

Staff writer Sarah Ellis contributed. Reach Tim Flach: 803-771-8483

New neighbors

Estimated population of Lexington and Richland counties

2015:

708,725

2035:

996,833

2050:

1,287,953

SOURCE: Central Midlands Council of Governments

WHAT DO ALL THESE PEOPLE MEAN FOR US?

Some trends likely to emerge as more people settle in the Columbia area:

Roads and traffic: Travel will be more congested, making for longer commutes. Interest might rise in commuter rail, buses and ride-sharing.

Public safety: More police, firefighters, ambulance crews and 911 dispatchers will be needed. Adding them will mean more taxes. For now, water and sewer service appears adequate.

Schools: More families mean more classrooms, particularly in steadily growing Richland 2 and Lexington 1, which covers about half the county.

Less open space: Neighborhoods instead of crops will sprout on farm fields. The suburban look of Lexington County east of I-26 might spread as far west as Gilbert, while northeast Richland County might look more like Forest Acres.

Lake Murray’s look: More homes and amenities could spring up around the 47,500-acre lake that offers a resort lifestyle and top-rated schools, particularly near Chapin.

Downtown Columbia: Parking will become more difficult, forcing motorists into garages. More apartments and condominiums will be in multistory buildings, partly to house students at the University of South Carolina as it expands.

Recreation: More families means more sports fields, playgrounds and parks. Protecting rivers from environmental damage will become more important.

Growing grayer: The population segment 65 years and older will increase from 12 percent of today’s population to 15 percent in 2050. Lexington Medical Center already is planning a second campus in the center of the county.

Jobs: What kind of jobs will we see? An older population means higher demand for medical care. More families mean more teachers. And more digital commerce means more high-tech opportunities.

Larger Lexington, Blythewood: Much of the influx will be around these two communities, hubs of popular schools with convenient commutes to downtown.

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