Cruise traffic getting revamp

Signs on Concord Street lead passengers to cruise ships in downtown Charleston as part of a new approach to traffic.

Following a November nightmare of traffic backlogs, staff from the State Ports Authority, the Charleston Police Department and City Hall huddled to find a strategy for the 2010 cruise season -- with its record number of ship calls -- which starts Monday.

They decided on four changes, most importantly getting passengers off East Bay Street as soon as possible. Instead of drawing them closer to Market Street, the new route steers drivers left on Chapel Street. From there they turn left on Charlotte Street and then right on Concord Street and onto the Union Pier Terminal.

The new plan also brings cruise passengers into an existing gate at Concord and Laurens Streets, farther north than the previous entrance, to prevent the traffic jam on Washington Street. The SPA painted yellow lines to create three lanes inside the terminal near the BMW exports, and a crew worked late into this week raising and paving asphalt in anticipation of cruise customers.

Security officers will check credentials inside the terminal to prevent a line from forming outside the gate. Limos, taxis and buses will continue to use the main gate entrance on Washington Street.

Another change: The SPA worked with the S.C. Transportation Department to install more than a dozen new brown-and-white road signs marked with the cruise ship symbol, directing passengers through the city. The SPA plans to use even more temporary signs on cruise days.

And finally, the SPA last month launched a new e-mail system that alerts residents and merchants when a cruise ship comes to town. SPA spokesman Byron Miller said more than 1,700 people have subscribed to the service.

Miller said the average ship brings about 400 cars onto city streets, only a fraction of the 20,000 drivers cruising down East Bay Street every day. But for downtown residents trying to reach the Harris-Teeter grocery store at the wrong time, those boat-bound visitors can hamper plans.

Elizabeth Farley Clark, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, numbered among those residents caught in traffic during the November cruise call. Clark said she found herself blocked by a police car while trying to reach the grocery store and then unable to turn left to get back there -- but with no sign warning her of the change. She welcomed the SPA's efforts to pull traffic off East Bay Street sooner.

"I think that's a really good goal, because it allays the fears of the residents of not being able to function in our city as we usually do," Clark said.

She added, "I know until you've tried things once, you don't know exactly how they're going to work."

The SPA expects 67 cruise calls this year, beginning with the Celebrity Mercury on Monday. The agency and New York-based urban design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners this week unveiled a preliminary master plan for its cruise business and for redeveloping Union Pier Terminal.

The plan called for relocating the passenger terminal north of the current facility to another building, five times as large, that handles cargo now. SPA planning and business development director Peter Lehman said the rerouting next week creates a template for the future terminal, which could open as early as 2012.

Referring to today's traffic snarls, Lehman said, "When this new terminal opens, that all goes away. We'll have a modern facility."

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