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Proposed Chapin style interchange reviewed in person by town representatives

Chapin, SC (Paul Kirby) As the proposal to relieve traffic problems going west on I-26 toward the towns of Ballentine, Chapin, and into Newberry County gets closer to reality, a relatively new style bridge has been included that is expected to be a part of the federal project for Exit 91 at Chapin. The full traffic project includes an SCDOT portion that deals with the interstate, and a Lexington County project that picks up somewhere near Bojangles on Columbia Avenue and bypasses the Chapin downtown with a loop, allowing commuters to miss the choke points of Columbia Avenue past the high school.

The proposed new bridge at Exit 91 is called a divergent diamond interchange (DDI). It’s a strange looking thing that has you at one point driving on what we Americans would consider the wrong side of the road among other things. According to transportation officials, even though it looks strange and confusing, it has proven to increase safety and decrease red light time, enabling traffic to get on and off the interstate quicker and on to your destination.

Another part of the federal project on Columbia Avenue would decrease businesses that have their driveways directly connect to Columbia Avenue. Instead, they would have connections through central access roads that all then connect to Columbia Avenue at one point, usually with a traffic signal. The fewer driveways that connect to the big, busy road, the safer it is to turn in and out of those businesses, according to highway engineers.

One day last spring, a group of employees from the Town of Chapin that included Utilities Director Andy Metts, Planning & Zoning Director Nathan Powell, Communications Director Nicholle Burroughs, and town councilman Al Koon took a day-trip to Cornelius, NC, a community that is near Lake Norman. Paul Kirby of The Lexington Ledger also went to document the trip by video. They went to look at, drive on, walk on, and see just how a DDI looks and works. Their bridge is off I-77 and mimics what is proposed in Chapin almost exactly. On that exit, there’s a McDonald’s on one side as well as other fast food choices. Ironically, there’s also a furniture store just off the exit as there is in Chapin.

The bridge in Cornelius is decorated with stainless steel cables that mimic sails, homage to the lake community, beautiful decorative street lights, and a sidewalk down the middle with high concrete barriers on each side of the walk for safety. There’s also landscaped areas that are well maintained that present the community very well.

As the group exited the interstate when first arriving, they did have to stop at a short time for a red light. Later, the visitors measured the red light’s times and the longest period that any light remained red was 60 seconds. Once the light turned green, instead of crossing a lane of traffic, you stay left of center and cross the bridge. Then, depending on the light color, you either sweep back across to the right lanes or pause until the light turns green to do so. Either way, the road sweeps in a serpentine pattern where motorists are directed by a mixture of clear pavement markings, signage, and the barrier wall that won’t allow you to goof and go in the wrong direction.

The Chapin team went a short distance off the bridge to the businesses’ access road and then easily turned into the McDonald’s from that. After parking in that lot, the entire crowd got out, stood on the wide sidewalk that led to the bridge, and watched the traffic flow. Without fail, the traffic flowed normally, and no one saw any apparent confusion. The team approached the bridge and used the crosswalk to go to the bridge’s center. Once they got on the sidewalk, cars flowed on both sides as they walked. A number of people passed either walking or riding bikes. Some were agreeable to stopping and talking about the bridge and the area in general. Without fail, the people who were talked to had positive remarks, although most admitted that during rush hour, the DDI does back up and they saw no way to prevent that with any type of interchange in a busy suburb of Charlotte.

The group timed the red lights, how long the pause was between one turning green and then the next, and the amount of time drivers spent stopped at a red light. They watched cars use the common business access roads to all of the businesses and the group even saw one college aged man jay-walk, taking his chances to walk far from the crosswalk and directional lights. No police were mnearby and the group said nothing.

Later, they went back to the McDonalds where Nichole Burroughs and others talked with patrons who use the DDI daily. Most said that the bridge was easy to use, the only complaint registered was regarding exiting the common access road that services the businesses. It was easy to get back onto the main road from the access road because there was a light at that intersection. The problem was, there was a feeder road that exited the back of the businesses that was congested. From the parking areas to the common access road were stop signs. That road also serviced a very busy mini-mall and at that stop sign, there seemed to be a bottle neck in the traffic. The group all felt like a light would better serve that intersection.

In all regards, the Chapin team’s opinion of the DDI was positive. Even when they passed a place they wanted to stop for lunch, there was a convenient place to do a legal u-turn provided by the engineers of the NCDOT. This was necessary because there is a nice median that makes the road appear more pleasing and provides additional safety. As the team rode across the bridge and got stopped at one of the red lights, a fire truck came roaring up with siren blaring. They watched the traffic to see if it would completely stop the emergency vehicle. The driver of that truck had no more trouble steering around than at any other intersection they’d seen.

All in all, the trip seemed to be worth more drawings, models, and videos. Standing on the interchange and watching the cars flow, talking to the people who use it ever day was invaluable. Some research has proved that these interchanges are popping up all over the country and they do work. A similar DDI is a part of the plan at the Peak exit on the I-26 widening project as well.

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