I-385 northbound lanes closed

GREENVILLE - Take the long way through Spartanburg, trading faster interstate speed for distance? Or dare to decipher the web of rural back roads winding up and down and over and back again through unfamiliar communities?

These questions were abstract before Monday - before the white concrete barriers not yet stained by the rigors of the road turned thousands of northbound drivers away from Interstate 385, in the first-ever closure of an interstate in South Carolina.

For 25 years, I-385 has been Greenville's lifeline to and from the Midlands and beyond southward - but now construction crews and work trucks are the only inhabitants in lanes that normally funnel thousands of motorists northward.

Cable barriers are being ripped from the medians. The road surface is being scraped to its bare essentials, in preparation for the eight-month, $60.9 million makeover that traffic planners say will make the interstate safer and more-passable in the long run.

Traffic will flow only south for a 15-mile stretch between Interstate 26 in Clinton and a confluence of rural roads in Gray Court.

The decision to close the interstate - a controversial one some legislators have said was a "done deal" before the Upstate ever had a say - is expected to save taxpayers $36.6 million and more than two years in traffic delays.

But questions still linger for those who must find another way.

Pat Franklin has found herself answering some of those questions.

For four years, Franklin has been a custodian of the lone public rest area along I-385. It is a few miles from I-26 and is rare in South Carolina in that it sits between both sides of the interstate, serving both.

The north side of the rest area's parking lot was eerily empty Monday.

On the other side came the cars - and the questions about where to go on the way back, which Franklin said she is happy to answer by grabbing a paper road map and a brochure the state transportation department has placed outside to explain the project.

"I'm prepared to tell them the best I can," she said.

Franklin herself will have to drive an extra 10 to 15 minutes to get home now that the interstate is closed.

The decision to close northbound travel instead of reducing lanes or turning one side into a two-way road was based on safety concerns, time savings and price savings, said Rob Perry, the transportation department program manager.

State officials are encouraging motorists to press on to Spartanburg and hook up with Interstate 85 to get to Greenville. But shorter routes are available - ones that will bring more activity to rural roads and towns that aren't accustomed to the traffic.

Ashleigh Taylor works the day shift at the Citgo gas station off I-26 in Clinton just before the veer off to I-385. Customers have worried about the closure since it became public. A map depicting alternate routes is taped to the window.

Taylor said customers who travel regularly to Columbia for business have said they will rethink how many trips they make considering the extra cost of gas and time lost on alternative routes.

Shortcuts down S.C. 14 through Laurens or up S.C. 56 through Cross Anchor will push traffic onto roads that are more-susceptible to deer collisions and black ice that forms in the winter.

The hunters who visit the store are used to those roads, but not the average commuter, Taylor said. "These people who are going to work don't want to hunt. They want to get to work."

Transportation officials have said they are monitoring state roads in Laurens County and some county roads in Greenville for wear and tear.

The project is necessary to the viability of an interstate expected to see traffic increase by more than 16,000 by 2027, officials said. The makeover will add 10-inch concrete in place of asphalt and widen shoulders and travel lanes.

Randy Snider owns Apple Creek Woodworks, one of the few businesses along I-385 in Ora, a few miles from where the project ends toward Greenville.

Snider, whose I-385 commute home to Simpsonville will take an extra 10 minutes, said he doesn't mind the inconvenience as long as it is worth it.

"It is what is. They're going to do what they're going to do, and you just have to get through it."