Could two new roads help ease congestion at ‘Malfunction Junction’?

Malfunction Junction tops county's list for most traffic accidents in 2016

Congested roadways and distracted drivers following too closely are reasons for most accidents on I-20 and I-26.
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Congested roadways and distracted drivers following too closely are reasons for most accidents on I-20 and I-26.

Could the answer to traffic backups and fender benders at Columbia’s notorious Malfunction Junction be found in the construction of two more roads over rivers?

The state Department of Transportation is analyzing 49 proposals for alleviating the dangerous confluence of I-126, I-20 and I-26 northwest of Columbia. Two of the more ambitious ideas are:

▪ Building a connector from the Harbison area across the Broad River to the Blythewood area to create a shortcut from I-26 to I-77. The route would run largely through undeveloped areas, skirting scattered neighborhoods.

▪ Adding a bypass to connect I-20 near Lexington, 1-26 in West Columbia and I-126 near Colonial Life Boulevard. The connector could cross or run along the lower Saluda River. Up to 236 homes might have to be demolished if this option is chosen.

Backers say each road could significantly ease slowdowns and improve safety. But the roads may prove too expensive to build while critics say both would threaten rivers that are popular for recreation.

Some community leaders consider the two roads a part of the solution.

Both could “take a load off” by diverting vehicles away from where the three interstates come together in the St. Andrews area, said Art Guerry, president of the homeowners association in the nearby Whitehall neighborhood.

But environmental groups worry the roads would harm water quality and recreation on the rivers as well as the wetlands adjoining them.

“We have serious concerns about the significant impact that both would have,” Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said.

The two roads could affect paddling and angling, threaten endangered fish and plants and interfere with extension of a long-planned greenway along the lower Saluda, he said.

River Alliance officials are working to make sure that “access will be better, not worse” on the greenway extension regardless of which route is chosen, said Mike Dawson, the alliance’s executive director.

State officials are weighing the trade-offs as they analyze ideas to ease congestion. The benefits, problems and costs associated with each option are being examined, said Brian Klauk, the state engineer overseeing the project.

Other major suggestions to reduce congestion in a 14-mile road corridor include:

▪ Widening nearby St. Andrews and Broad River roads to handle more traffic.

▪ Altering a dozen intersections so traffic gets on and off the interstates faster. Some new entrance and exit ramps may be elevated because of tight quarters.

▪ Encouraging flexible work schedules and promoting bus and commuter rail ridership.

State transportation official plan to choose a half dozen semi-fnalists this summer, with each likely to be a mix of ideas. The final choices will be made in mid-2018.

Construction could cost as much as $1.5 billion and take up to 7 years to complete, officials predict. Construction could start in 2019.

The highways were built in the 1960s, with improvements added through 1997 as more neighborhoods and stores rose along the routes that weave through Lexington and Richland counties.

No one foresaw the number of vehicles traveling the roads today as the Columbia area grew and I-26 became a lifeline between Lowcountry ports and the Upstate manufacturing hub.

Up to 133,600 vehicles travel through the I-20/I-26/I-126 intersection daily, traffic studies say. That is sure to increase as the Columbia area’s population is expected to double in the next 25 years to 1.3 million, officials say.

State officials also are exploring ways to minimize disruption for motorists during construction, said Klauk of the state Department of Transportation.

State Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Irmo, said the payoff from the improvements must be worth the pain motorists are sure to suffer while the work is underway.

“It needs to be better than what we have,” Huggins said. “It needs to work well.”

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483

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