Relieving congestion at Malfunction Junction requires reshaping what Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld on Tuesday called “an hourglass through which everyone must fit” at the outdated intersection of three interstate highways.
Sonefeld was among scores of Midlands residents who offered suggestions to state transportation officials on ways to ease the Columbia’s area’s traffic nightmare for commuters and cargo haulers alike.
Those ideas are the first step in developing a package of improvements for better traffic flow at the intersection and adjoining sections of highways.
State officials want to have a plan ready to go by mid-2018 after considering ideas that some motorists say should include nontraditional steps such as increased reliance on buses and trains between suburban homes and downtown jobs.
The roads include I-20 between the Saluda and Broad rivers; I-26 from Broad River Road at Irmo to U.S. 378 at Lexington; and I-126 between I-26 and Riverbanks Zoo.
“We qualify this as a mega-project,” said Brian Klauk, the state engineer who will oversee the project, “This is the crossroads of our state.”
Some motorists said one easy solution might include outer roads diverting traffic elsewhere, particularly a direct connection to I-77 to the east.
But others say more roads are an expensive step that may not be the answer.
“Not every solution consists of more pavement,” said Lill Mood of Chapin, a longtime advocate of commuter rail transit between Columbia’s outer suburbs and downtown.
Construction could cost as much as $800 million and take up to 10 years to complete, according to some preliminary estimates.
Adding features will take time and likely create new bottlenecks given the heavy traffic on the roads that must be accommodated during the work.
Improvements probably will come in stages, Klauk said.
The highways involved were built in the 1950s and 1960s, with improvements during the 1970s and 1980s as neighborhoods and stores arose off the routes.
But that didn’t stop traffic from sometimes overwhelming the corridor, particularly during morning and evening rush hours.
No one foresaw the number of vehicles today traveling the roads as the Columbia area grew and I-26 became a lifeline between Lowcountry ports and the Upstate manufacturing hub.
At the most heavily traveled parts of the corridor, some 133,600 vehicles use the road daily. Information on how many vehicles were initially expected to use the intersection of the three interstate when it was built was not available Tuesday.
Improvements that some experts suggest include additional lanes,, elevated ramps, lanes reserved for multiple commuters in the same vehicle, longer merging lanes and better signs directing traffic.
It isn’t certain that money for the plan will be there when the plan is ready. So far, $92.6 million is set aside for it, said Heather Robbin, the study’s manager.
Sonefield suggested stationing equipment along the roads to take care of minor accidents that he said often create “oops moments” snarling traffic.
Some commuters aren’t certain what the answer is but want the problems fixed.
“There’s a lot of ideas,” said Barbara Waldman of Irmo as she added hers to the pile solicited from motorists in a meeting at Seven Oaks Elementary School in the St. Andrews area. “It’s hard to say what will come from this. Hopefully, it will be better.”
Staff writer John Monk contributed to this story.
Malfunction Junction: By the numbers
Intersecting interstates - I-20, I-26 and I-126
Miles of road
Overpasses and bridges
Average vehicles traveling daily where the three interstates meet