Editor’s note: The State this week is looking at the five worst traffic headaches in Lexington County. Today is No. 4: U.S. 378 near Lexington Medical Center. We’re not including in this series Columbia’s infamous Malfunction Junction — the merger of I-26, I-20 and I-126 — because state transportation officials are preparing to start work next year on fixing that area.
The No. 5 problem was Columbia Avenue in Chapin.
When staffers at Firehouse Subs in West Columbia cater an event at Lexington Medical Center, they leave 30 minutes early as a precaution because of traffic, manager John Bailey said. They do that even though the eatery is almost directly across U.S. 378 from the hospital.
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Navigating congestion on U.S. 378 “can be challenging,” he said. “You never know what’s going on.”
The stretch of U.S. 378 around the hospital is a frequent choke point for motorists:
▪ Besides hospital traffic, the area is a major commercial strip with two dozen restaurants, 15 medical offices, five office parks and a half dozen strip malls.
▪ It’s a major route for commuters across central Lexington County headed to and from jobs in downtown Columbia.
▪ The road meets I-26 just east of the hospital, an interchange on the edge of backups associated with Malfunction Junction.
U.S. 378 near the hospital carries more than 26,000 vehicles daily, about the same as in 2006, according to state traffic counts. But the segments adjoining it carry about 3,000 more today than in 2006, those counts show.
Bottlenecks around the hospital are common during rush hours when the line of cars can extend nearly a mile both ways, those who work in the area say. Congestion also can flare unpredictably at other times, they add.
West Hospital Drive through the medical center campus is the only route in and out for residents of 1,200 homes, condominiums and apartments behind the hospital. “It can be miserable at times, stop and go,” said Jack Jansen, president of the Hulon Greene Homeowner Association.
Some hospital employees add at least 15 minutes to their commute as a cushion for congestion. Enduring the jams is “a necessary evil,” medical records technician Sarah Walker said.
But the congestion doesn’t pose problems for county ambulance crews, county spokesman Harrison Cahill said. The crews know congestion there “is something to look out for,” he said.
Cosmetologist Olivia Lucas is accustomed to late arrivals at 1st Spa and Nails across from the hospital. “The road can be a madhouse,” she said. “It can be really hard to get in here.”
What’s been done
Extra turn lanes into the hospital that were added a few years ago help a bit, officials said. But traffic still backs for a few blocks in heavy traffic, officials say.
The fix planned
Hospital officials are considering a $6 million package to ease the problem:
▪ Forming a partnership with the town of Lexington to extend a network of computerized signals that stay green longer when traffic is heavy on U.S. 378. The plan is to extend the network to 10 intersections around the hospital. The system uses cameras and computers to detect heavy traffic on main thoroughfares, then adjusts traffic lights to reduce backups.
▪ Extending Hulon Lane behind the hospital to Fairlane to create a third entrance for medical center traffic and homeowners to take an unknown amount of vehicles off U.S. 378.
▪ Adding turn lanes in and out of West Hospital Drive to ease stop-and-go traffic there.
Work on some parts could start by spring and be finished by mid-2019, said Mike Greeley, hospital vice president of operations.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483