If there’s one thing nearly everyone agrees on, it’s that they hate waiting in traffic.
But most ways of reducing backups — widening roadways or adding side streets to take pressure of main arteries — also involve waiting.
Waiting on local governments to find funding.
Waiting for engineers to design plans.
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Waiting for contractors to bid on construction projects.
But a relatively quick way of cutting down on congestion along U.S. 278 on Hilton Head Island and greater Bluffton may be right around the corner.
Changing the pattern of traffic signals along the highway could help cut down on backups in the short term, Beaufort County and S.C. Department of Transportation traffic engineers say.
There are plans to update the signal patterns — which are often, engineers say, based on outdated traffic data — for 22 traffic lights between Hampton Parkway to the west and Beach City Road to the east.
Carol Jones, an SCDOT engineer, told county leaders Monday that “traffic signal re-timing can (result in a) reduction in travel times, improved safety, and hopefully a reduction in road rage.”
County traffic engineer Colin Kinton said the current light system along U.S 278 was “designed in 2008, and there have been a lot of changes to that corridor since 2008.”
Jones explained the three main types of traffic signal timing systems:
▪ Time of day: The stretch of U.S. 278 on Hilton Head Island uses the time of day system — the most basic option — which sets light cycles to correspond with times and days of the week.
▪ Traffic responsive: In the greater Bluffton area, traffic responsive systems are used. Those systems use preset light patterns based on the time and day, but can be adjusted as traffic volumes change.
▪ Adaptive systems: These systems — already in place in the Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Greenville areas — have no specific timing plan and can be changed quickly based on roadway conditions, Jones said.
Starting next month Jones said SCDOT plans to provide funds — roughly $45,000 — to tweak the patterns of seven lights on the island and study traffic volumes over several months.
Kinton said that during the study staff will be able to measure “the flow of traffic across the system in real-time.”
Based on the results of the study — expected to be substantially complete by April — the town may opt to upgrade its signal programming to a traffic responsive or an adaptive system, Jones said.
Along the greater Bluffton stretch of U.S 278, there are plans to upgrade 15 lights to an adaptive system at a cost of roughly $270,000.
This system, expected to be implemented in the late spring, will help “residents and businesses get on to (U.S.) 278” from side streets and can adjust to real-time events such as crashes or road closures, Jones said.
Jones acknowledged the limitations of even the most sophisticated traffic light system.
“Whatever we do, it’s going to be a near-term solution,” Jones said.
The county has several long-term projects officials hope will eventually take a big bite out of the traffic problem around the Hilton Head Island bridges.
Beaufort County Council members and staff are working on a proposal to bring a referendum to a vote in November of next year to raise $120 million for transportation projects.
The lion’s share of that revenue, $80 million — raised over a period of four years by adding a penny tax to every dollar spent in the county — would be used to on projects around the aging Hilton Head Island bridges, according to preliminary plans.