Easing Traffic Headaches on I-26

Tue May 19, 2009 - Southeast Edition
Eric Olson




An expensive, but much-welcomed solution is currently being built to alleviate one of South Carolina’s most traffic-congested corridors.

Crews are busily working along a 3-mi. (4.8 km) stretch of Interstate 26 in North Charleston, from the intersection with Ashley Phosphate Road south to the I-526 interchange.

Plans call for expanding the interstate roadway from three to four lanes in each direction, building new exit lanes at the Ashley Phosphate, Aviation Avenue and Remount Road exits, as well as redesigning the interchanges at the two latter exits.

In addition, workers also are realigning Fain Boulevard, which runs alongside the interstate on its west side from Eagle Drive south to Aviation Avenue.

Traffic Headaches

The hope is that all of the work, budgeted at $86.7 million by the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), will greatly improve traffic flow through one of the worst bottlenecks in the Charleston area.

“It is just a heavily traveled road and the traffic has really been a problem through there,” said James Law, a spokesman for SCDOT’s District 6 office. “There are some extremely convoluted interchanges along that part of I-26.”

Law added that a huge amount of traffic moves a short distance from U.S. 52/Rivers Avenue west along Ashley Phosphate Road to access I-26, creating big headaches for motorists during rush hour.

“A lot of that traffic also gets off at the I-526 interchange, so widening I-26 to four lanes in each direction will hopefully move traffic through there more efficiently,” he said.

The stretch of I-26 seeing the work also is close to Charleston’s airport, as well as several major shopping centers, light industrial centers and even some residential neighborhoods.

In addition, much of the summer traffic is from tourists going to or from downtown Charleston or heading toward the beaches. The result is often near-gridlock conditions on what should be a free-flowing interstate.

So with those traffic headaches in mind, SCDOT brought in U.S. Group Inc., based in Columbia, with a regional office in nearby Summerville, as the project’s general contractor.

U.S. Group’s contract on the project totals approximately $66 million, according to company vice president Greg Cook. He said the bulk of the work would encompass the redesign of the two main interchanges, the erection of four bridges, the widening of more than 3 mi. of interstate and the reconstruction of the median.

A total of 31 subcontractors also are being directed by Cook’s company, including Rea Contracting, based in Charlotte, which will do the bridge/overpass work; Banks Construction Co., of Charleston, in charge of the asphalt paving; and McCarthy Improvement Co., headquartered in Davenport, Iowa, which is the firm doing the concrete paving.

Slight Tremors,

Stable Structures

Cook said that another subcontractor, Hayward Baker Geotechnical Construction, a global company based in Odenton, Md., is doing some interesting work at a couple points along the project in order to counteract the area’s little known history of earthquake activity.

In 1886, an earthquake estimated to be between 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter scale killed more than 100 people. Even today, slight tremors are a regular occurrence in the Lowcountry.

“They are doing ground improvements there because of the seismic conditions at the approaches to the bridges — the liquefaction of the soil,” Cook explained. “They auger out a hole and jam stone into it — it is called a stone column. The idea is to compress the earth around it and make it all one big stable unit.”

Work on the entire project began last August when crews started resurfacing the shoulder of I-26 with new asphalt near Ashley Phosphate Road.

The scheduled completion date for the entire project is set for April 15, 2011, although SCDOT is hoping for an earlier finish — maybe as early as the end of 2010.

Due to a revised traffic study of that portion of I-26 by U.S. Group, Cook thinks the work can move quicker over the next several months.

“We analyzed the traffic patterns and were able to accelerate the staging plan by working on Phase 3 and Phase 6 at the same time,” he explained. “Those are the Remount Road and Aviation Avenue interchanges. They are actually under construction now. We also revised some of the detours and left the bridges wider so that they would not impede the current traffic pattern during construction.”

Currently, as many as 100 workers can be found scurrying over the project — both day and night. During daylight hours, crews busy themselves with grading the roadways other than the interstate itself, while the bridge work, overhead work and work in the median of I-26 is done at night.

So far, the interstate has been closed on several evenings, allowing U.S. Group to set the 200-ft. (61 m) long girders that span both directions of I-26. When that happens, traffic is re-routed onto U.S. 52/Rivers Avenue, which runs parallel to the expressway to the east.

“Besides widening the interstate to four lanes, we also are adding about 2 miles of collector distributor lanes, which should eliminate the weaving that many drivers have had to do to get on and off the roadway,” Cook said. “We are really trying to make safer merge conditions at the exits. There are two on-ramps close together at the interchanges of Aviation Avenue and Remount Road. The first one is a full cloverleaf and the other is a diamond, but they are jammed together and have made for a dangerous merge. This new configuration will create two full lanes for everybody to get up to speed.”

Cats All Around

Anybody traveling through the area will see a number of trademark yellow Caterpillar machines at the work site moving dirt, breaking up old concrete or digging trenches. According to U.S. Group’s operations manager in South Carolina, Haskel Sexton, his company is a firm believer in the value of Caterpillar equipment.

“I would say that 90 percent of our equipment is Caterpillar from skid steers to rollers, to graders, to dozers,” he said.

Sexton said part of his company’s reliance on Cat equipment is due to the outstanding dealer support U.S. Group gets from Blanchard Machinery, the Cat dealer for the entire Palmetto State.

“Well, we own our equipment and maintain our fleet ourselves, but Blanchard’s parts availability, even on non-stock items, is usually overnight. We just love having that access to the dealer when we need it.”

He added that because of the way that U.S. Group uses its equipment, often around the clock, product dependability is an on-going concern for the company.

“For instance, we use a Cat M318D rubber-tire excavator for fine grading for sidewalks, slopes and ditches — and then, at night, it does concrete removal on the interstate. It just has to be durable,” Sexton said.

Among the other Caterpillar pieces being used on the I-26 project are model 320 to 330 hydraulic excavators, D4, D5 and D6 dozers, model 615 scrapers and 12H motorgraders, according to Sexton.

“We also have a lot of wheel loaders, which we use for working with pipes and utilities, including several IT28s, 924s and 930s.” CEG