FORT MILL — If light rail service ran north and south through Fort Mill, would you leave your car at home and ride the train instead?
It’s not going to happen tomorrow — or even next week — but light rail service along the U.S. 21 corridor is a definite possibility. The idea is on the Long Term Improvements List of recommendations by the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study, an intergovernmental agency that address road issues. RFATS, which held its first meeting of 2019 recently, is looking at a number of projects in the region. The group, according to its website, “coordinates continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive transportation planning activities within the urbanized area , in cooperation with South Carolina Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Federal Transit Administration.”
This is not the first time the idea of light rail to service the fast-growing Fort Mill and Tega Cay areas has come up. As thousands of new homes and residents have fueled population booms, one of the most visceral impacts has been on traffic. Rail service could help keep many vehicles in driveways and off roads at peak hours.
RFATS committee member Michael Johnson, who represents the area on York County Council, tweeted out the list of recommendations:
On the short-term list is a reconfiguration of the I-77/Gold Hill Road interchange, which as anyone who commutes or tries to travel Springfield Parkway at rush hour knows, is major traffic nightmare. That work has been in the design phase. Also on the sooner than later list is to eliminate the left turn on S.C. 160 West at Market Street and Kingsley Park Drive in the Baxter Village area.
The Intermediate list has a five-lane widening of U.S. 21 from the Catawba River Bridge to S.C. 160 in Fort Mill and a five-lane widening of Sutton Road from the Baxter area to U.S. 21.
Not uncommon to road and other infrastructure projects, some of these local plans are delayed by rights of way acquisitions.
Johnson (R-Dist. 1) said the most direct path forward would involve extending the CATS Blue Line out of Charlotte south over the state line, but an early projected cost of the project almost makes it prohibitive.
“It is hard to call anything that costs $1.2 billion realistic, especially with our lack of funding,” Johnson said. However, he also said the level of interest makes it worth exploring.
“That being said, employers in this area are calling for it as a way to reach younger workers in Charlotte,” Johnson said. “We could reduce the amount of cars using our system if build out properly – in tandem with a smaller line land service moving people from east to west.”
He’s even gone so far as to imagine where the local stops would be.
“In a perfect world we would see a stop near Southbridge, another at Kingsley, with a third stop just north of the river along Hwy 21,” Johnson said.
Difficult as it might be to pull together, RFATS officials are at least going to gather data and see where they can go from there.
” (Rock Hill’s) Mayor Gettys asked for a joint meeting of local governments at RFATS and I intend to host a meeting with Tega Cay, Fort Mill and Rock Hill to discuss ways we can work together to bring light rail to this area,” Johnson said.
“Ultimately, this will have to be a partnership with the state and federal authorities in order to get the type of funding needed to make this happen.”
The plan to eliminate the turns in the Baxter area and another S.C. 160 improvement project are two of the most important now in the pipeline, Johnson said.
“We’ve been working on this for months — along with (Fort Mill) Mayor Savage — but I was excited to hear that SCDOT has given preliminary approval to shutting down the left hand turns at Market Street and Kingsley Park Drive and creating a divided highway along 160 between Munn Road and Pleasant Road,” he said.
“We have to improve the operation of that interchange and move cars through that area faster. There are far too many accidents at 160/I-77 and this plan will hopefully reduce them allowing traffic to flow. Of course, all of this is just a band aid until the entire interchange can be reworked in 2022” as part of RFATS’ short-term goals. Of all the plans on RFATS’ slate, Johnson said he believes the S.C. 21 widening will have the biggest local impact.
“It would allow for a five-lane parallel road to I-77,” Johnson said.
“It would also give us another major artery for traffic that is headed to Kingsley or Southbridge to use as opposed to the interstate,” he said, but explained, “This project is on the RFATS 2035 list but is not fully funded. When you look at this area there are very few roads that can be widened. The main roads that we must focus on are Highway 21 and Sutton/Pleasant Roads. We aren’t going to ‘build’ ourselves out of this — the roads can’t be widened in many places. We have to focus our resources on widening roads that will make the most impact and allow traffic to flow smoother.”