Displaced left turn

“At first glance, it looks like a strand of DNA,” said Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie, after seeing Charleston County's plan for the intersection of U.S. Highway 17 and S.C. Highway 41. Provided

Charleston County recently slammed the brakes on plans to fix West Ashley’s infamous “suicide merge.”

Folks have complained about the ungraceful convergence of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Old Towne Road for years, giving it that unfortunate nickname and imploring local officials to do something about it.

But when presented with a few options to improve the intersection this summer, 87 percent of residents said they would prefer doing nothing over any of the other choices.

Which is becoming a trend around here: People raise Cain about our ridiculous traffic, then raise even more when presented with a plan to fix it. And that, County Council has learned, is no way to solve anything.

Two days before going hara-kiri on the suicide merge, the county unveiled a complex and literally multilayered plan to relieve Mount Pleasant congestion at the intersection of Highways 17 and 41.

Aside from its ingenious handling of the actual intersection, the design — which routed other traffic right to go left, and diverted some U.S. Highway 17 drivers into Brickyard Plantation — was received, well, less than enthusiastically. Council has already informally told its contract engineers to try again.

Meanwhile, plans to widen S.C. Highway 41 remain in limbo because the fix is probably going to require an unpalatable displacement of some families. And improvements to James Island’s Riverland Drive are stalled because residents weren’t happy with the double roundabout “dog bone” design proposed this year.

This has become an unending pattern for Charleston County Transportation Development, a roundabout with no exits. Now officials are stuck trying to get these projects back on track.

Councilman Vic Rawl says the problem is that some of the needed traffic fixes are hard to pull off in areas that are already developed. Not enough room.

“Road planners have been thinking outside the box because there’s no way to do it inside the box,” Rawl says.

He’s right. But some of their solutions aren’t real popular with folks. Councilman Brantley Moody says the suicide merge plan got scrapped because the engineers tried to do too much.

“People are OK with smaller fixes, like improvements to intersections,” Moody says. “But they don’t want wholesale change.”

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Yes, the county’s most popular road fixes of late have been decidedly traditional. They turned the merger of Bees Ferry Road and Highway 17 South into a simple T-intersection with a light, and improved the Sam Ritt/S.C. Highway 61 crossing by enlarging turning lanes and widening the road.

Everybody loves those improvements. But such traditional fixes aren’t always possible. Engineers get creative. But council Chairman Elliott Summey says some engineers are trying to fix our big-city growing pains with big-city fixes that are sometimes a little too ostentatious for the Lowcountry.

“They are trying to cure polio when we only have the flu,” Summey says.

Summey and other council members are suggesting longer turning lanes, eliminating blind spots and decidedly more sober, and normal, ways to improve traffic flow. Councilman Teddie Pryor says a simple fix may improve many projects. Most of the projects that have proven unpopular include roundabouts, and “people just don’t want them.”

So, many of those projects are destined to go back to the drawing board, Pryor says. But will council try to speed up the process by telling staff and contract engineers to forget about roundabouts?

“I think they’re probably going to get the message,” Pryor says.

Traffic remains one of the biggest problems in Charleston County, and residents know that. Twice, they have approved half-cent sales tax increases to fund road projects. That means “no build” is not an option.

But the opposition to many road projects these days is reminiscent of the hand-wringing over 526, which has delayed that road’s completion and caused its budget to skyrocket. Which, of course, the opponents now use against it. If the county spends the money to finish 526, they argue, there won’t be money for all the other needed traffic improvements.

Well, if all these other projects face the same type of backlash the suicide merge and the Highways 17 and 41 intersection have seen, County Council will have more than enough surplus road money. Because nothing will ever get fixed.

Talk about going around in circles.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.