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Traffic clogs highways

By JENNY ROBERTSON | Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- State officials say that in the next 20 years, I-85 between Spartanburg and Greenville will have to grow to 10 lanes just to accommodate expected population and economic growth.

And Spartanburg County estimates that some two-lane sections of Highway 9, which connects fast-growing residential communities with the city of Spartanburg, sometimes carries 24,000 vehicles a day -- about twice the road's capacity. Adding turn lanes and improving intersections could alleviate some of that congestion.

Both projects could benefit from federal money, but local officials aren't sure if or when that help will come.

When Congress adjourned last month for the final campaign slog, it left states in a legislative lurch by failing to pass a six-year spending plan for transportation. The last six-year authorization expired Sept. 30,

2003. Since then, Congress has passed six short-term extensions, designed to keep current highway projects running until differences in the next six-year plan can be hashed out. The current extension expires next May.

Until then, state and county officials say they work on maintenance of roadways and quick fixes for problems. They plan on funding levels staying the same, but don't count on big pots of money needed for major highway endeavors.

The state Department of Transportation in 2001 completed a two-year, $98 million construction project that widened all segments of I-85 between Greenville and Spartanburg to six lanes.

Even that is barely keeping up with continuing population growth in the region. Spartanburg County's population has grown by 15 percent since 1990, while Greenville County has seen a 23-percent increase. And that pace is expected to continue, according to state population projections.

By the year 2015, nearly 800,000 people will be living in Spartanburg or Greenville counties, representing a 12-percent increase from the current two-county population of approximately 650,000.

Spartanburg stands to gain $9 million for Highway 9 improvements if Congress authorizes transportation spending. U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint also earmarked $10 million for the Brockman-McClimon Road interchange to help traffic flows around the BMW Manufacturing Corp. plant and the airport, his office said. And state officials said the future of proposed I-73, which would connect I-95 to Myrtle Beach, hangs on whether the bill passes.

When Congress comes back for the lame-duck session later this month, leaders will negotiate differences between the $318 billion Senate transportation bill and the $275 billion House bill.

I edited this article from the Herald-Journal

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