Live 5 Investigates: What’s in the works to fix a dangerous downtown intersection?

Updated: Feb. 13, 2020 at 7:47 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - After hearing multiple complaints from people who live and work along Calhoun Street and Ashley Avenue, our team staked out to see why people were calling the area dangerous.

Within a few minutes at Ashley Avenue and Calhoun, we saw several drivers blatantly running through red lights, nearly hitting pedestrians. We also got a video of drivers making illegal left turns on red.

“I’ve seen a pedestrian get hit and a motorcycle gets hit. It’s a dangerous intersection,” said pedestrian Sherry Miller.

Like many hospital workers downtown Charleston, Miller crosses the intersection at Calhoun and Ashley several times every day.

“Most people have learned you wait until the red light turns and then... you wait. before you cross the street,” she said.

It’s not just at Ashley Avenue. Calhoun at St. Philip can be rough for pedestrians, too, especially for the College of Charleston students during class changes.

"I think the city could make its budget on giving out tickets on these two intersections. That's how bad it is," Miller said.

One passerby asked, "Are you reporting the fact that they run the red light here and people get hurt?"

Many others expressed their concerns as they walked by our camera.

One thing they pointed out is that there are only crosswalk lights in some directions, which can make it confusing to know if you're safe to cross.

Several people also said the different timing of the lights throws off drivers and pedestrians.

"I have no idea here whether or not I have the light," said our producer Jared Kofsky as he approached a crosswalk.

One of the crosswalk lights that is posted was only working part of the time.

The S.C. Department of Transportation labeled the entire Calhoun Street corridor as one of the ten most dangerous in the state for non-motorized users - such as walkers and bikers and, yes, skateboarders. St. Phillips Street is also on that list. Five of the ten roads are in Charleston.

Data provided by the Charleston Police Department shows officers have responded to at least 258 accidents at Calhoun and Ashley over the past two years. That's more than 10 traffic accidents per month on average.

Some involved pedestrians and bicyclists hit.

Common reasons for the crashes were factors such as distracted driving, following too closely and making improper turns.

One city leader says writing more traffic tickets is not a long-term fix. "The first line of defense is the infrastructure," said Keith Benjamin, Director of Traffic and Transportation for the City of Charleston. "No matter what mode of transportation somebody takes, they should be safe in the public right of way. And if we're truthful about it, that's not necessarily the case in our city. There's work we need to do around that and work we have been doing."

Benjamin says while the state owns the road, the city and county are all working with DOT to make improvements along Calhoun Street.

"We want to upgrade the cabling along Calhoun Street. Right now it's copper cabling. Not fiber cabling. And so that prevents us from being able to have those signals communicate with our traffic management center," Benjamin explained.

He said the new fiber cables will help give them more control to monitor Calhoun Street remotely at the city traffic center. Right now, they can't do that for Calhoun.

"Being able to have that communication allows us to troubleshoot in an emergency situation and peak hours situations to respond," he said.

Benjamin also has some more creative ideas. “What’s called all-ped phasing. Our what some people call barnyard pedestrian phasing. Which essentially means pedestrians at one phase or another at an intersection can not only cross at all four legs of the crossing, but also diagonally. That basically there’s a phasing in the signal system timing where it’s all for pedestrians.”

There’s an older city study that references 17 intersections, he said, and it’s possible he’d look at implementing diagonal pedestrian crossing at some of those.

"A number of cities across the country have implemented it. It's not something new around the country but it would be new for us."

We also found out the SC DOT is about to launch a road safety audit here on Calhoun.

In a statement, SCDOT Director of Traffic Engineering Rob Perry said, "We plan to conduct a road safety audit (RSA) in either late February or early March to study it. This study includes an interdisciplinary group of staff from FHWA, SCDOT, local government, first responders, and local law enforcement that will be invited to participate."

Perry continued, "The focus of this will be bike-pedestrian so they will look at adequate sidewalks, adequate cross-walks, signal timing, lighting, etc. to see what improvements can be made it improve bike-pedestrian safety. Once the study is concluded, SCDOT will then look to design and construct improvements that are recommended."

"We have to give people the option of making the safe choice," Benjamin pointed out.

Folks who work and walk along here are glad that investment coming and hope it will make them all feel safer.

“I am so happy to see you out here,” Miller said to our reporter. “Because it is a nightmare!”

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