Study ponders interstate 526 traffic

Cars drive west along Interstate 526 on Friday.

Heavy traffic on Interstate 526 is only expected to get worse as Boeing ramps up production of its 787 jet and Charleston International Airport expands.

A new $1 million federally-funded study is looking at what to do about the problem.

The analysis, about 25 percent complete, takes a look at I-526 traffic from U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley to just past Interstate 26 at Rivers Avenue. The numbers gathered so far show I-526 traffic increases sharply as drivers get closer to Interstate 26.

On average, some 35,100 vehicles per day travel I-526 in both directions from its starting point at U.S. 17 to Paul Cantrell Boulevard. That number jumps dramatically to 80,200 vehicles daily from Montague Avenue to I-26.

The figures show the latest picture of the problem facing one of the busiest corridors in the Lowcountry. The data gathered by a consultant for the state Department of Transportation will be part of a presentation at a public hearing on possible solutions to I-526 traffic. The meeting is set for Tuesday at North Charleston City Hall.

Improvements to the intersection of I-526 and I-26, a dedicated travel lane for buses and widening the highway from four lanes to six lanes are some options on the table.

"There's no silver bullet. I see a whole range of options," said Jeff Burns, a transportation planner with the Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester Council of Governments.

DOT wants public feedback on how to solve I-526 traffic.

"A lot of times the public has some really good solutions," Burns said.

Other possibilities include car pooling, telecommuting, light rail and using freight trains instead of trucks to haul cargo. Staggered work times would ease the traffic crunch, Burns said.

"Our (transportation) system functions really well at 3 a.m.," he said.

Safety is a primary concern. In 2007, five people died in a crash on I-526 that happened at the long and narrow merge lane from North Rhett Avenue. The wreck involved an 18-wheeler, a van and two cars. The tractor-trailer collided with the rear of a car merging onto I-526. The truck exploded into flames that consumed the van and cars.

Since 2008, some 1,014 crashes have happened on the interstate from Savannah Highway to Rivers Avenue, most of them during the day in dry weather. Most of the accidents were rear-end collisions. Less than 1 percent involved fatalities, according to data gathered for the study.

Annual traffic growth along I-526 has ranged between 1.75 percent and 4 percent during the past decade.

"The I-526 corridor between Rivers Avenue and U.S. 17 currently experiences high traffic volumes with considerable congestion during the weekday A.M. and P.M. peak periods," a study summary states.

"Future traffic volumes are expected to increase considerably with several large developments in the area," it says.

DOT hired local firm Stantec Inc. to conduct the analysis. The DOT and Stantec are working with the Charleston Area Transportation Study, the region's federally recognized metropolitan planning organization.

The Council of Governments also plans to take a close look at transit alternatives for Interstate 26. The group has put out a call for firms qualified to do the work, Burns said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711