County plans to move forward with traffic circle

BLYTHEWOOD – After multiple community and council meetings over the last year about a proposed controversial double-lane traffic circle that would impact the entrance to Cobblestone Park and the retail, restaurant and office businesses located on University Village Drive in Blythewood, the pot was still boiling Tuesday during a Blythewood Town Hall meeting held on the issue at The Manor.

With more than 50 people in attendance and many of them addressing the issue, the problem is not solved, but   Richland County government appears to be digging its heels in to proceed with construction of the traffic circle as well as widening Blythewood Road to five lanes.

The proposed $10.5 million project is part of the Richland Penny Tax program and extends less than a mile along Blythewood Road from Syrup Mill Road East to the Southbound I-77 ramps.

The posted project overview on the website shows the existing roadway would be widened to a five-lane section with two travel lanes in each direction and a two-way left turn lane, which is a paved 15-foot median.  Ten-foot shared-use paths are proposed on each side of the roadway for the length of the project to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.  A double-lane traffic circle is proposed near the intersection of Community Road and the entrance to Cobblestone Park.

During a public project meeting held at Muller Road Middle School on March 22, by representatives from the Penny Tax Program, a large group of residents, primarily from Cobblestone Park, turned out to question the safety and effectiveness of the traffic circle.

Responding to a phone call from The Voice inquiring about the results of resident input on comment cards after the Muller Road meeting, Project Manager Ben Lewis was clear.

“The plan is to move forward with Option A – the 5 lane, offset, shared use option,” Lewis said.

Twelve residents spoke at the Tuesday night meeting with the majority being Cobblestone residents speaking out against the creation of the traffic circle.

“It appears the Penny Tax Committee has chosen an inadequate, short term fix for a longer term issue,” Cobblestone resident and former Town Councilman Tom Utroska said, reading from a two page letter in which he addressed a number of issues including how tractor-trailers would negotiate 270 degree turns on the circle without causing major backups.

Another Cobblestone resident, Bethany Parler, said she was concerned about the large number of out-of-area visitors to the Cobblestone golf club and restaurant who would not be familiar with how to negotiate the traffic circle which requires drivers leaving Cobblestone Park to cross two lanes of traffic on the circle before turning left toward I-77.  She urged the Town of Blythewood concentrate on the McNulty Road to Main Street, Langford Road traffic problem and move the Blythewood Road project to number two on the agenda.

There was a moan from the audience when Mayor J. Michael Ross suggested the hypothetical possibility of a fatal traffic accident happening while the project was on hold.

Courtney Levett, another Cobblestone pointed to the traffic circle installed on Piney Grove Road in Columbia where, he said, there had been a lot of damage to the curbing and 3 foot tall reflective sticks by traffic trying to negotiate the turns.

“I would like Richland County to delay their decision until this can be further explored,” he said, indicating that he felt that the issue had divided the town.  His suggestion to let the Town vote on it was met with applause from the audience.

But Ross countered.

“Almost three thousand people live in the town limits,” Ross said, “and the only people who’ve called me have been my [Cobblestone] neighbors.  These projects are to better the whole town of Blythewood,” Ross said.

Former Blythewood High School teacher of the year Allison Byrd cautioned the County about how they use tax dollars.  She suggested pausing the traffic circle project until a study could be done on the installation of a traffic light at Syrup Mill Road to slow down traffic.

Larry Sharpe, who owns large parcels on each side of the section of Blythewood Road that would be impacted by the traffic circle an opposes the project, talked about the influence that industrial growth on Community Road and near Syrup Mill and H.R. Horton’s continued building in Cobblestone would have on the traffic circle.  He also talked about the problem that would be created with motor homes or trailers and boats trying to navigate the circle.

But not all Cobblestone residents were opposed to the project, including Buddy Price, a 19-year Blythewood resident.

“Every year it has gotten worse, and it is getting less and less safe,” Price said.   He said he would have preferred a stop light be installed but he expressed support for the plan and encouraged the council to move forward quickly.

Mike Switzer, Executive Director for the Blythewood Chamber, said he hopes the plan will go forward.  He said he had spoken with the businesses on University Blvd. Drive and the Food Lion Shopping Center and that they were concerned with their customers being able to get out onto Blythewood Road.

“Cobblestone residents have a back way to those merchants,” Switzer said. “How would you feel if the merchants closed?” he asked.  “The Town will lose a lot of revenue if that happens.”

At the suggestion of Ross, David Beatty and Ben Lewis from the Transportation Penny project followed up on questions that had been raised during the meeting.

Beatty shared the history of the Penny Tax Resolution all the way back to its inception in 2012.

“There were just 2 projects for this area and it is very restricted. We can’t create new projects beyond those covered in the referendum,” Beatty said.  “The current DOT traffic count is 11,000 a day and is projected to be 16,000 a day in 20 years.”

Ben Lewis, the project manager for the Blythewood project, said that federal standards don’t currently warrant a signal at the intersection of Syrup Mill Road and Blythewood Road as previously suggested.  He also said it is not possible to put a signal instead of a traffic circle at the Community Road and Blythewood Road intersection because there is a minimum spacing requirement between signals of 1300 feet and it is only 730-750 feet to the traffic circle area from the signal at the I-77 ramp.

“The benefit of a roundabout [traffic circle] is that it slows speeds,” Lewis explained.  “It reduces severity of accidents by 80% according to DOT statistics and 100% in South Carolina.”

Regarding Utroska’s suggestion to restrict tractor-trailer traffic, Lewis said SCDOT makes those calls and that the heavily populated urban areas are most likely to be qualified.

Richland County Council Chair Joyce Dickerson encouraged the Blythewood Town Council to be open-minded regarding the traffic circle.

“When projects go on hold,” Dickerson warned, “the money will be spent somewhere else.”  She cited an Irmo area traffic circle project that had citizen concerns when proposed, but that, she said, had turned out to be very successful.

“As Richland County grows, what you put in place now will work down the road,” she said.

Looking back to the council meeting in May of 2012, Ross suggested that if they had known how things would have turned out, that council would likely have taken the McNulty Road project as their first choice.

“But that isn’t possible now,” he said.

The next step, Lewis said, is be to begin rights-of-way acquisitions.  He said plans are still to begin construction in the fall or winter of 2019.

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