The $66 million fix that widened a stretch of Interstate 26 in North Charleston and redesigned two interchanges has improved traffic flow, but it's also had an unintended consequence: It's more dangerous.
I-26, a major artery connecting Charleston with I-95 and Columbia that's often clogged with commuter traffic during rush hours, was widened to eight lanes between Interstate 526 and Ashley Phosphate Road as part of a larger $245 million effort to improve travel in that area.
Judged solely on moving more vehicles, the widening project achieved its purpose. Before it was finished in 2011, officials said, I-26 traffic at Ashley Phosphate moved as slow as 30 mph during rush hours. With more than 100,000 vehicles traveling that route daily, commuters are grateful for the improvements.
"Driving from Summerville to North Charleston takes about 30 minutes in the morning when it usually would be close to one hour," said Mark Kerr.
"That's all due to capacity improvements," said Dipak Patel, DOT technical applications director.
But it's come at a cost to drivers' safety. More drivers are speeding and tailgating, causing more crashes and more deadly collisions, law enforcement agencies report. So far this year, two people have died in that 4-mile stretch of I-26 compared with only one in the previous three years.
"Speeding and following too close are the biggest issues in this area," said Highway Patrol spokeswoman Hannah Wimberly.
Collisions are up 9 percent from 2012 to 2013. Accidents with injuries increased 42 percent in the past decade, the Department of Public Safety reported. Experts said driver inattention - primarily using cellphones while driving - is also a factor.
Speeding tickets climbed about 4 percent from 2012 to 3,554 citations in 2013, the Patrol said.
'A dangerous commute'
The most recent fatality involved a chain-reaction crash caused by a driver going 85 mph who sideswiped another vehicle while making an illegal lane change, authorities said.
The driver, Omea Johnson, 20, died when her Mazda hit a wall at the Remount Road exit.
Virginia Dixon of Summerville was a passenger in her son James Todd's truck, which was caught in the terrifying pinball-like collisions. In a split second, they hit an overturned vehicle and then slammed into a median wall.
Dixon wasn't seriously injured, but since then, she has been afraid to drive on I-26.
"It still scares me to death. I won't go on it any more unless I have to," she said.
The crash happened in an area where I-526 and I-26 converge. Westbound vehicles exiting I-26 onto Remount Road and Aviation Avenue have to avoid drivers merging from I-526 onto I-26. The mixing of traffic flows is among more than a dozen deficiencies in a Department of Transportation analysis of the interchange.
Marcus Thompson, an Air Force criminal investigator, said the merge from I-526 west into I-26 west requires looking back over his shoulder multiple times to make sure he hasn't missed any vehicles coming from behind as he changes lanes.
"It's actually kind of scary," he said.
State highway engineers are working on a redesign of the interchange, a rush-hour chokepoint.
"The preliminary engineering has already been approved, and we are moving forward," said Brent Rewis, project manager.
Project construction is expected to begin in 2018, Rewis said.
Some $60 million in available funding has been identified for the project. However, another $119 million is needed for completion, according to the State Transportation Improvement Program.
For Dustin Willis of Mount Pleasant, that effort is long overdue.
"Probably one of the worst interstate intersections I've ever driven, with the exception of ... D.C.," he said.
Going from I-26 east to I-526 east or west is not easy because the junction is poorly planned, Willis said, and the problem is compounded by increased tractor-trailer traffic.
"It makes for a dangerous commute," he said.
To try to improve it, the DOT recently added road surface directional signs for I-526 east or west that reinforce overhead signs.
Bart King, who lives west of the Ashley, said the I-26/I-526 interchange is a problem in part because of driver behavior.
"Nobody is getting over for you. Most of the people I have found are not kind. A lot of it, I believe, has to fall on driver courtesy and awareness," he said.
That is a situation that extends to other areas of I-26. Often, drivers trying to get on the interstate are traveling faster than those already on it. And there are intermittent standoffs between lines of cars and 18-wheelers jockeying to get to their destination.
A recent analysis done for the DOT includes recommendations for redesigns of the I-526/I-26 interchanges as well as I-526 interchanges at Rivers Avenue, International Boulevard, Montague Avenue and Leeds Avenue.
Other traffic reduction options are being explored for both interstates. On I-526, a recent DOT study explored a lane designated for carpools, more mass transit, staggered work times and implementing a fee for trucks that use the interstate during peak hours.
The study determined that designated lanes for carpools wasn't feasible because they wouldn't be used much. Toll lanes were not practical because they would only recover 55 percent of operations and management costs.
In the tri-county area, I-26 handles an estimated 146,100 vehicle trips daily, which is 21,100 more than its designed capacity.
"In short, the region has a significant transportation problem and the historic solution of mere road-widening is both exorbitant and potentially infeasible," says a report prepared by Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments consultant Davis & Floyd.
So what is the answer? A $1 million federally funded COG study aims for a solution to the I-26 traffic mess as it evaluates futuristic sounding options such as a levitating train powered by magnetism that travels at 300 mph.
No one expects that to happen soon, if ever. To address the immediate traffic and safety issues, the Coastal Conservation League is calling for more than $400 million designated for completing I-526 over James and Johns islands to instead be spent on fixing I-26.
The League has begun putting billboards in different locations on I-26 drawing attention to the issue. One of them compares I-26 commuters to sardines packed into a can. The group's Fix26First website says the interstate is in bad shape, traffic is getting worse and in next decade some 50,000 more vehicles will add to the gridlock.
"The plan is to roll this campaign out this summer. We feel it's a really important issue," said Myles Maland, a project manager for the League.