The $1.7 billion, five-phase construction effort is being spearheaded by the South Carolina Department of Transportation, which has contracted with the experienced professionals at Archer Western and United Infrastructure, working as a joint venture, to build the first two phases.(SCDOT photo)
Making the driving experience better and safer for motorists and commuters using the freeways that connect on Columbia, S.C.'s west side is the goal of the state's huge Carolina Crossroads project, known colloquially — and for good reason — as "Malfunction Junction."
The $1.7 billion, five-phase construction effort is being spearheaded by the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), which has contracted with the experienced professionals at Archer Western and United Infrastructure, working as a joint venture (AUJV), to build the first two phases.
Contracts for the final three segments of the project will be let at a later date, SCDOT said.
The extensive rehabilitation project is badly needed as the convergence of traffic on Interstate 26 and I-20, and south to the point where I-126 is formed, has long created a pinch point in the part of Columbia west of the Broad River. That has led to clogged highways and frequent accidents, particularly during rush hours.
In fact, SCDOT has noted that more than 134,000 vehicles, including freight haulers and cars passing in, out and around South Carolina's capital city, motor through "Malfunction Junction" each day.
But Brian Klauk, SCDOT's project manager of the freeway rebuild, is quick to point out that his agency did not hang the notorious nickname on the troubled highway/interchange system.
He does know, however, that it has fallen to his agency to fix the problem, and he is confident that SCDOT has a reasonable, if costly, long-term solution.
"The Carolina Crossroads Project will implement modern infrastructure design throughout the I-20/I-26/I-126 corridor that will make it safer and easier for drivers to navigate through the area," Klauk explained. "For example, we anticipate incorporating a turbine design and collector/distributor ramps at the I-20/26 Interchange which will eliminate the need for drivers to [hazardously] weave through multiple lanes of traffic to connect from one interstate to another."
An alternative to conventional interstate on- and off-ramps, turbine designs are four-way directional interchanges. They have become a popular choice among freeway designers in recent years because they require fewer levels (usually two or three) while retaining directional ramps throughout, and feature right-exit, left-turning ramps that sweep around the center of an interchange in a clockwise spiral.
Klauk said the contractors at Carolinas Crossroads also will build the first diverging diamond interchanges (DDIs) in South Carolina's Midlands region so motorists can more safely make left turns onto the interstate.
"When the project is complete, we'll be saving drivers an average of 112 hours in annual drive time by creating more efficiency throughout the corridor," he noted.
The design of the Carolinas Crossroads freeway upgrades also calls for the construction of 132 mi. of new lanes; 14 mi. of widened interstate highways; 43 new bridges; seven reconstructed interchanges to replace outdated cloverleaf loops; and safer interstate exit points that are farther apart and separated from other freeway traffic.
Klauk said SCDOT is employing "an innovative delivery approach" in each of the first three phases, at least, to streamline the final design and building to allow the project to finish quicker.
"The approach is the use of design-build procurement for the construction work," he said. "This means that we competitively secure the services of a designer and contractor [Archer United] on a single team. Combining these disciplines can yield a final design with improvements that capitalize on the combined strengths of [each company]."
Construction on Phase 1 of the Carolinas Crossroads got under way in 2022, with a nine-year project timeframe, according to SCDOT.
Two Interchanges Combined Into One
Phase 1, on the south end of the overall project, is being built at a cost of $210 million. It centers on the reconfiguration of the I-126/Colonial Life Boulevard interchange where two existing bridges are being rehabilitated and three new overpasses, including the first DDI, are being constructed to create a less-congested, full-access interchange.
By moving the current I-26/Bush River Road interchange a short distance to the southeast and combining it with a rebuilt I-126/Colonial Life Boulevard crossing point, AUJV will produce a new full access freeway interchange at Colonial Life. SCDOT believes the update will improve traffic flow and safety by removing an adverse weave on I-26 westbound between I-20 and I-126.
Nearby, improvements also are planned to increase traffic flow along I-26 heading in the direction of U.S. Highway 378/Sunset Boulevard. Among them are lengthening the I-26 eastbound exit ramp to U.S 378 to accommodate the large number of vehicles that exit there in the afternoon and prevent stopped vehicles on the interstate shoulders.
"The Carolina Crossroads project is one of unprecedented scale for the state, so the project team went to great lengths to incorporate best practices and risk mitigation strategies [to] put us in the best possible position to get ahead of the challenges that come with a project of this size," Klauk said. "A lot of our risk mitigation measures include advance work on permitting, right-of-way and the incorporation of a quality assurance program."
The first phase is slated to be completed and open to traffic in late 2024.
Phase 2: Midlands' First DDI
Like Carolina Crossroads' first phase, the second also is in its embryonic stage of construction, Klauk noted, with AUJV putting the finishing touches on its design. Much of the same work already done in the earlier phase is being performed in Phase 2.
"The key features of Phase 2 will be the building of three new bridges and the implementation of an offset diverging diamond at the Broad River Road interchange at I-20," he said. "This part of the project also will include construction of a new collector/distributor ramp that will make it easier for drivers to access I-26 westbound when coming from I-20 westbound."
Another major component of this segment of the project is the removal of the shared ramp with Garner Lane Road to eliminate possible wrong-way driving out the eastbound entrance ramp to I-20.
The turbine interchange at I-20/I-26 and the widening of both freeways will be key to reducing congestion and improving safety within the corridor, Klauk added, while noting, "the DDI interchange at Colonial Life Boulevard/I-126 [part of Phase 1] and the offset DDI at Broad River Road/I-20 also will be important incremental improvements that the public will experience in advance of the construction of Phase 3."
SCDOT listed the cost to build Phase 2 at $210 million, with all work done by the AUJV team.
Columbia area drivers can anticipate completion on this part of the project in early 2025.
Outmoded I-20/I-26 Interchange to Get Makeover
None of the final three phases planned for the Carolina Crossroads rehabilitation and construction project have yet been designed, Klauk said, but most of the goals for each have been set by SCDOT.
For instance, when major construction on Phase 3 starts in late 2023, the state agency envisions it taking place at, or near, the very heart of the interstate corridor, where I-20 and I-26 meet to form a complex interchange. There, the crossing point currently relies upon cloverleaf ramps to connect drivers to each direction of the two freeways, but SCDOT intends to install a new turbine interchange in their place.
Other highlights of Phase 3 include improving a second Bush River Road interchange, this one to the west at I-20, and a reconstruction of the I-26/St. Andrews Road interchange.
If all goes to plan, substantial completion on the third phase should occur by the fall of 2028, according to SCDOT.
Last Two Phases Likely to Wrap in 2029
It will be 2025 before Phase 4's construction gets under way, but when work does ramp up it will include a reconstruction of the I-26/Harbison Boulevard interchange to make it easier for motorists to access the interstate.
More work will be done to relocate Jamil Road and Fernandina Road, each of which run parallel to I-26 on either side of the freeway between Harbison and St. Andrews Road, to prepare the highway to be widened with an additional lane in each direction as part of Phase 5.
In that fifth and final last phase, to begin in 2027, contractors will have the task of building several key elements before SCDOT declares the Carolinas Crossroads project finished, hopefully sometime in 2029.
Besides the widening of I-26 to accommodate more vehicles, the builders also will:
- Create full-width, 12-ft. inside shoulders on I-26 to improve emergency vehicle access and provide a safer refuge for stalled vehicles.
- Reconfigure the existing Piney Grove Road entrance and exit ramps to I-26 to make it easier for drivers to access the interstate.
- Adjust the ramps at the Lake Murray Boulevard and Broad River Road interchanges to accommodate the I-26 widening.
SCDOT Views Work as ‘Malfunction' Correction
In addition to making the freeway corridor safer and easier, Carolinas Crossroads was proposed with South Carolina's future population growth in mind as the state continues to be a popular relocation spot for many people from across the United States.
The upgrade and modernization of the outdated triple interstate corridor is also critical to the state's economic vitality, state officials contend.
When it is complete, the eventual transformation from a freeway "malfunction" to a modern, spacious people mover comes on the heels of another of the state's traffic "pinch points" recently rebuilt at the I-85/I-385 interchange in Greenville. A third such fix is needed at Charleston's I-26/I-526 crossing and is currently on the SCDOT drawing board as part of its 10-Year Plan to upgrade the state's substandard roads and highways. CEG
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