Johns Island takes traffic signal problem in hand

Troy Mitchell monitors traffic at the intersection of River Road and Maybank Highway during Friday afternoon rush hour.

The Johns Island intersection of Maybank Highway and River Road might not be the most dysfunctional in Charleston, but it has triggered enough griping to prompt the city to take a novel step: operating the traffic light there by hand.

For the past week, the city has had an employee parked at the intersection during peak morning and afternoon hours.

In their hands they have cradled a device, known as a “plunger,” that allows them to adjust the light as needed to maximize traffic flow.

And it seems to have made a difference, said Robbie Somerville, interim director of the city’s Traffic and Transportation Department.

“It’s not hurting, and I think we’re getting good information,” he said.

Several motorists have shouted out words of support — or other words — as they drove by.

“Oh yeah, they’ve noticed us,” Somerville said. “I was out there Wednesday morning and we had people stop and thank us, saying the traffic is moving much better. We’ve had people holler, ‘Please do something about the signal.’ ... We’ve gotten some positive feedback, and we’ve gotten some negative.”

A flood of complaints to Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg’s office earlier this year helped spur the new approach. Somerville said he has been with the city 20 years and cannot recall ever having an employee stationed at a traffic light to override its change sequence.

The city employee will remain at the intersection during rush hour for the next five business days.

Somerville said the employees can use the plunger to cause the light to change — if they observe that all the traffic has already passed through — or they also can hold the light green longer in one direction if needed to clear a back-up.

Although the city has a high-tech control room inside its Traffic and Transportation Department’s Lockwood Boulevard offices, Somerville said this work has to be done by hand. The necessary cable has not been run to Johns Island to make traffic cameras work there.

Asked about the success of the manual traffic light operation, Somerville said it’s hard to say because the need to tweak the signal has been hit and miss.

“It’s hard to say how often we use the plunger,” he said Friday. “I was told this morning it wasn’t used at all. It flowed fine.”

Also, a few accidents, pedestrian crossings and other quirks have affected the flow during peak hours.

City Councilman Marvin Wagner, whose district covers the city’s portion of Johns Island, said he was somewhat aware of the city’s efforts, “but I really haven’t gotten much feedback.”

Still, Tecklenburg expressed support for the effort.

“With almost 50 people a day moving to the Charleston area, we need to take an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to traffic relief,” he said. “This project is a good example of that — a quick, low-cost improvement at one intersection that can make a small but hopefully meaningful difference in rush-hour traffic.”

The city employees at the intersection are doing more than just changing the traffic light.

They also are taking notes about how well the light’s sequence is working. The signal already has been programmed to try to maximize the traffic flow, but Somerville said the city will review the notes with its consultant, Stantec, to determine if the synchronization should be changed.

They also will share their results and conclusions with Tecklenburg.

And the employees will return to the intersection later next month, after schools are back in session, to monitor the light and take more notes.

Asked if the changes will solve the delays, Somerville said, “I’m very hesitant to say that, but I’m hoping we can get some short- term solutions and possibly some long term.”

Long term, the city plans to start a traffic signal timing project across West Ashley and James and Johns island. Somerville said that project should be completed in March 2017.

Delays at the Maybank-River intersection have been a source of concern for years. In 2013, County Councilman Joe Qualey pushed to alleviate traffic woes there by tinkering with the light’s timing. The city spent about 70 hours researching the change before concluding it wouldn’t work.

While traffic has increased across the Lowcountry, Johns Island commuters have been among the hardest hit in recent years, as its ever growing number of residents continue to commute across a network of mostly two-lane roads.

And efforts to complete Interstate 526 — which would include new bridges linking Johns Island with both West Ashley and James Island — have stalled out.

Meanwhile, Charleston County is working on a multimillion-dollar project to improve the traffic flow along Maybank Highway — from the Stono River bridge to River Road — by creating a “pitchfork” of roads near the intersection. That project remains in the permitting phase.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.