The new year got off to a grim start on Interstate 526 as two people lost their lives in back-to-back traffic accidents on an eight-mile stretch from North Charleston to West Ashley.

The state is taking a $1 million look at the section of the interstate — Rivers Avenue to U.S. Highway 17 — to see what improvements could be made.

“Safety is a major component of this study,” said Dipak Patel, technical applications director for the Department of Transportation.

The DOT has posted on its website some of the data collected for the I-526 “corridor analysis,” such as traffic volume and flow, accidents and fatalities. From 2009 to 2011, more than 1,000 wrecks happened on the interstate from the Rivers Avenue interchange to West Ashley, including seven deaths.

“The traffic is awful,” said April Bigelow of North Charleston, a hair salon manager. “We have grown to the point where I think we definitely need to widen I-526.”

Stantec Inc., a transportation consultant, will make recommendations on how to improve I-526 traffic and safety when the 18-month study wraps up in the spring.

“They’ve looked at a whole gamut of solutions,” Patel said.

More mass transit, designated lanes for carpools and a toll for solo drivers are among the ideas analyzed.

“We have to look at the bad boy, widening. Basically what you end up with is a buffet of solutions,” he said.

The study also looks at improvements to the juncture of I-526 and Interstate 26. Where the two interstates meet, I-26 carries upwards of 135,000 vehicles daily and I-526 more than 80,000 vehicles.

“That, to me, is a dangerous spot. That’s where I had my first accident,” said trucker Lamar Brown of Charleston.

The four-lane highway is expected to play an increasingly vital role for commuters, shipping and aviation. Charleston International Airport, which is served by I-526, plans to add six new gates and double passengers in 20 years. Port of Charleston expansion includes a new North Charleston terminal, which, at build-out, will boost shipping capacity by 50 percent.

Now, though, I-526 and I-26 appear stretched to the limit. At afternoon rush hour on Wednesday, a digital sign on I-26 westbound advised motorists stuck in bumper-to-bumper congestion that it could take up to 20 minutes to drive two miles to I-526.

Mike Brown of Summerville said I-526 congestion from West Ashley to Rivers Avenue reflects a lack of planning.

“You would think something else could be done about it. I don’t think we really dealt with it. We didn’t do a very good job on expectations of growth,” he said.

When morning and afternoon rush hour clears, the issue becomes lead-footed drivers on I-526. Last week, traffic enforcement officers from Charleston, North Charleston and the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office wrote more than 200 tickets, mostly for speeding. A motorcyclist was clocked at 139 mph.

The combination of speed, congestion and inattentive or impaired driving can lead to deadly results. On Jan. 28, an 18-wheeler on I-526 plowed into eastbound traffic stalled at Rivers Avenue because of an oil spill two miles down the road, killing Lauren Elyse Baccari, 27, a medical student due to graduate in the spring. Police charged the truck driver with reckless homicide.

On Jan. 27, a Hanahan woman was jailed on a felony count of driving under the influence involving death in a crash that killed 35-year-old Serjei Cahuantzi, a bartender at Joe Pasta who had plans to start his own business. The accident happened on I-526 eastbound at Dorchester Road.

DOT said on its website that the primary purposes of the I-526 Corridor Analysis Project are to gather “baseline” information about the interstate and develop ideas for reducing traffic and meeting tomorrow’s needs. Near-term low-cost strategies and more costly fixes for the future will be identified.

As part of the study, meetings were held to gather public input on ways to lessen I-526 congestion, such as through mass transit and rail transportation.

Currently, there is no construction funding for any transportation improvements on the I-526 corridor. One purpose of the study is to identify potential project costs for budgeting.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.