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'Malfunction Junction' interchange makeover gets final go-ahead to start next summer

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JUMP Morning traffic into Columbia (copy)

Traffic heading into Columbia crawls along on a morning in 2019. More than 144,000 cars per day travel the interstate near “Malfunction Junction.” Photo by John Carlos

The $1.6 billion makeover of Malfunction Junction — the confluence of three Columbia-area interstates known statewide for commuter traffic snarls — can begin after the state won final regulatory approvals this week. 

Work is set to start in the summer of 2021 after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the project that's considered the state's most-expensive ever.

It took the S.C. Department of Transportation just nine months to secure a permit clearing the way for a 15-year construction window, agency chief Christy Hall said, though officials hope to have the project done earlier, by 2029.

Problems along the stretch of three major highways — Interstates 20, 26 and 126 — have been blamed for stifling growth in the Midlands because of an outdated design that carries more than 144,000 vehicles a day.

Without the repairs, commuters through the corridor spend nearly three work weeks — 112 hours on average — stuck in traffic, according to state transportation estimates.

"I would argue it doesn't just transform the (Midlands) region, it's going to be transformative for the entire state," said Carl Blackstone, CEO of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. "I-20 and 26 are essential for getting port traffic from the Lowcountry and vice versa."

Carolina Crossroads, as its been named by the state transportation agency, calls for a redesign of an intersection where the three interstates meet northwest of Columbia, adding lanes and building out other junctions.

"The project is also key in making the state's interstate transportation system safer and more efficient," said state Transportation Commission member John Burriss of Chapin, whose district includes the Midlands.

The venture is to be completed in five phases, with the first improving a pair of intersections adjacent to its center. Ultimately, the corridor will boast seven new interchanges and shed cloverleaf loops with on and off ramps.

Many of the initial steps won't be seen by the public, such as relocation of utility lines.

Interstates will remain open during the buildout, with work done overnight and between peak commute times, DOT spokesman Pete Poore said.

Daily updates on lane closures, detours and other construction activity will be released in real time once construction starts.

Blackstone said potential new investment and existing businesses could be more willing to broaden their Palmetto State footprints with a much safer and efficient interstate highway system in place.

"Time is money, so when their guys are sitting in traffic for two hours, it's costing those companies," he said. "This will help tremendously in attracting companies. Quite frankly, it impedes progress right now."

Additional lanes are being added in either direction on Interstate 26, along with 12-foot inside shoulders for emergency vehicles and longer, separated exits.

Officials in the Midlands were quick to praise an end to bureaucratic hurdles, with shovels expected to break ground on the project by next fall.

“If we’re going to grow as a county and continue to evolve, it’s going to be essential for this project to get done,” Richland County Council Chairman Paul Livingston said.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

Benson joined The Post and Courier's Columbia bureau in November 2019. A native of Boston, he spent three years at the Greenwood Index-Journal and has won multiple South Carolina Press Association awards for his reporting.

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