Lexington County’s third-worst traffic headache is ‘packed most of the time’

A town of 21,000 has the traffic of a city of 130,000

Two main roads come together in Lexington and cause traffic frustration. There is a plan to help.
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Two main roads come together in Lexington and cause traffic frustration. There is a plan to help.

Editor’s note: The State this week is looking at the five worst traffic headaches in Lexington County. Today is No. 3: U.S. 378 in the town of Lexington. 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.

The No. 4 problem was U.S. 378 around Lexington Medical Center.

The problem

Retired engineer Brent Siegel tries to skip trips to stores and restaurants along busy U.S. 378 in the heart of Lexington in late afternoon.

“It’s unbelievable how it stacks up,” he said. “It’s just a nightmare.”

Bumper-to-bumper travel is common on the road even outside of morning and evening rush hours.

“It’s really packed most of the time,” said Siegel’s wife, Sherry, who works part-time in marketing in stores on the road.

Congestion is especially bad in the the half-mile where U.S. 378 and S.C. 6 merge before each branches off. “That area is a balloon that’s been full up” for a decade, Town Administrator Britt Poole said.

More than 40,000 vehicles travel that segment daily, a total that’s held steady since 2006, state traffic counts say. The numbers haven’t changed because the road “is at capacity and can’t handle any more,” Poole said. “People have figured out other ways to go.”

The stretch of U.S. 378 shared with S.C. 6 anchors a major commuter route for residents of central Lexington County headed to and from downtown Columbia from areas as far away as the south shore of Lake Murray and Gilbert. It also is a regional retail hub with Lexington Middle School at its west end.

Because three major highways — U.S. 1, U.S. 378 and S.C. 6 — all intersect in Lexington, the town of 21,000 residents has the congestion of a community with 130,000, officials say.

What’s been done

After adding turn lanes in 2013 at two intersections on U.S. 378 near where S.C 6 splits off, town officials settled on technology as the main solution.

Town officials had sought $80 million in federal aid to widen intersections and to create a downtown bypass on Butler Street. But those plans were shelved when the town only received a sixth of the request.

Instead, the town five years ago used $5.3 million in federal aid to create a computerized network of traffic lights designed to alleviate congestion on thoroughfares. The network now has three dozen digital signals.

Technology is a faster and cheaper way to reduce congestion on roads lined with stores and shops that are too expensive and difficult to widen, former town mayor Randy Halfacre said.

Besides paying for the signals, the federal aid helped widen intersections and add turn lanes from Main and Butler streets onto U.S. 378 a few blocks west of the middle school.

Also, the town adopted development guidelines a decade ago that require strip shopping centers be linked by interior roads, which keeps shoppers traveling from one center to the next off of thoroughfares.

The fix planned

The network of traffic signals is only partly complete, with 16 more slated to be added by spring. The lights will mainly be on a five-mile stretch of U.S. 378. The new lights will bring to 35 the number connected to the town’s network.

The network should shave at least 3 minutes off trips through town, allowing thousands of cars to move faster, officials estimates.

In addition, town officials plan to add turn lanes at the intersection of U.S. 378 and S.C. 6 next to Lexington Middle School. The number remains to be determined as traffic engineers test if one or two in each direction is needed. Access to Dreher Street at that intersection will end.

Work on that project is due to start in two years and be done by 2021, paid for by revenue from a local meal tax adopted in 2015.

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483