May 24 eastbound I-26 traffic (copy)

Traffic crawls in the eastbound lane on Interstate 26 near W. Montague Avenue in North Charleston recently. File/Andrew Whitaker

The commute from Tom Rivers' home in North Charleston to his office in downtown Charleston has gotten considerably longer in the last decade.

"It's gone from 30 minutes a few years ago to at least 45 minutes every day now," he said. "And it's not unusual for it to take more than an hour if there's a wreck."

That's not news to the state Department of Transportation. 

They know there are problems with the last 32 miles of the Lowcountry's main artery, and are looking at ways to improve the commute to and from Charleston starting at S.C. Highway 27 at mile marker 187 to the end in peninsular Charleston. 

Despite the 60 miles per hour speed limit, the average speed starting around University Boulevard on the eastbound lanes dips to 27 mph beginning at about 7 a.m. weekdays. It doesn't recover to normal speeds until after 9 a.m., according to DOT. 

In the afternoon, the westbound lanes start slowing around the Interstate 526 Interchange, crawling along at 23 miles per hour, between 3 and 4 p.m. and not returning to normal until after 7 p.m. 

In some areas of Interstate 26, there are nearly 50 percent more cars on the road each day than there were in 2007.

Add to that accidents — there were 1,600 crashes last year on that stretch of highway — and you've got a recipe for really long commutes and frustrated drivers.

"I know I'm going to be sitting in it, so I just prepare myself," Rivers said. "I'll listen to a podcast or something and just try to be patient." 

Widening the highway from Ashley Phosphate eastward is likely not cost effective because of development and wetlands close to the road, according to DOT officials.

"We are probably in the last stretch of widening in the urban areas," said DOT Director of Planning Brent Rewis. "At some point, we're going to be forced to look at other means and other ways to reduce congestion in urban areas."

So DOT is turning to people who drive the route every day.

"We'd like to get information on areas that they feel are issues, so we can try to address the situation," Rewis said. 

About 50 people attended a public meeting at North Charleston City Hall to learn about the options and give their suggestions.

"I'm generally very concerned about traffic issues," said North Charleston resident Jay Rice. "It's pretty obvious we're still in the horse-and-buggy mindset so I would like to see what's being considered." 

Ideas being pondered include: 

  • Shifting demand out of the peak travel periods, including ride sharing, telecommuting and compressed work weeks.
  • Low-cost improvements to improve the use of the existing roads and safety, incident management improvements and traffic signal upgrades. This could include lengthening entrance and exit ramps, for instance. 
  • High-occupancy managed lanes (HOV) or high-occupancy toll managed lanes (HOT) to add to the capacity.

Officials said it has not yet been determined what would be required for construction of HOV or HOT lanes.  There are several different models in operation throughout the country, although there are currently no HOV or HOT lanes in South Carolina. 

DOT will be collecting comments through the end of August. 

Another public meeting will be held in 2019 to present the findings, Rewis said. 

Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713. Follow her on Twitter @brindge.