With Richland Mall overhaul underway, could traffic improvements be in sight for Forest Drive?

For some, traffic on Forest Drive is a given headache they simply plan around.

“I avoid it from about 8-10 and 3:30 to 5:30,” said Rick Noble, who has lived in Forest Acres for more than 20 years and who took advantage of the relative calm of going to Lowes Foods at 11 a.m. on a Monday.

And the traffic has picked up again after a brief dip during the pandemic.

In 2023, an estimated 27,600 cars each day drove down the busy stretch between Beltline Boulevard and Trenholm Road — up from 26,300 in 2022 and 25,200 in 2021, according to South Carolina Department of Transportation data.

But with the redevelopment of the Richland Mall and a new Forest Acres park planned at one end of the stretch, and the Cardinal Crossing and Trenholm Plaza retail areas anchoring the other end, city leaders are hoping to make the corridor more pedestrian friendly and are looking at the two major intersections first.

“Those two intersections, I feel, have maybe more potential than what they are today. In other words, having them be more pedestrian friendly, be more walkable, (have) better connectivity,” said Forest Acres City Councilman Haskell Kibler, who asked the Central Midlands Council of Governments to consider paying for a study of the two Forest Drive intersections.

The Council of Governments has allotted $75,000 for a study looking at what updates can be made at the two busy intersections.

The money comes from federal and state dollars specifically allocated to regional transportation and governmental groups like the Central Midlands Council of Governments for transportation projects, explained executive director Britt Poole.

It’s unclear how expensive any actual work on the two intersections would be, and Poole said the contract for the study likely won’t be awarded for a couple of months.

The Council of Governments is also paying for traffic studies on Corley Mill Road in Lexington and at the intersection of state highways 6 and 60 in Irmo.

Forest Drive’s evolution

Forest Acres has been chipping away at improvements on Forest Drive since a roughly $125,000 traffic study in 2015 recommended a laundry list of fixes.

“The main question is: Do residents want Forest Drive to move people through the City or do they want Forest Drive to be a part of the community?” a line in that 2015 study asked.

In the years since those recommendations were made, some have been acted on — such as the installation of “smart” adaptive traffic signals by the state transportation department to improve the flow of vehicles. But other suggested fixes have never come to fruition, including a recommendation to bury power lines and another to install planted medians along Forest Drive to discourage dangerous left turns (though the state department did put up barriers to prevent left turns outside of Cardinal Crossing).

Kibler said the goal is still to make the corridor an integral part of the community, not just a traffic-heavy pass-through. The city recently opened the new Gills Creek Memorial Park, and Kibler and his wife walked to the grand opening on Forest Lake Place from their neighborhood.

“I’d love to see more of that happening,” Kibler said. “I think this study will help get us there, or at least understand what it looks like.”

The $100 million Richland Mall redevelopment at the intersection of Forest Drive and Beltline Boulevard, which is slated to include new retail space and more than 500 new apartments, isn’t expected to dramatically increase traffic because there will be less retail space than before, Forest Acres has said in official releases about the project. But with the planned city park, Forest Acres leaders hope there will be more foot traffic in the corridor.

The 2015 study came before the Cardinal Newman School on Forest Drive closed in 2016 and was subsequently redeveloped into Cardinal Crossing, now home to hundreds of residents and multiple businesses. Many residents worried that project would make traffic worse and increase accidents.

But those worries don’t appear to have materialized: The corridor is already safer than it was before the Cardinal Crossing development near Trenholm Road, according to a previous analysis of state Public Safety Department data conducted by The State.

That analysis found that between 2013 and 2016, there were an average of six collisions and five injuries from accidents per year on Forest Drive between North Beltline Boulevard and North Trenholm Road, according to DPS data. The numbers fell to three collisions and two injuries a year between 2017 and 2022.

Another way Forest Acres is trying to make Forest Drive more accessible is by considering incentivizing businesses to connect their parking lots, so motorists can go from one business to another without getting back on Forest Drive, said city manager Shaun Greenwood. That’s a recommendation that dates back to the 2015 study outcomes.

“Pedestrian safety and traffic calming go hand in hand,” Greenwood said.

The city has also looked at replacing crosswalks with alternative surfaces, such as brick, to make them stand out more from the road.

“It’s just trying to figure out what will have the greatest impact,” Greenwood said of the Council of Governments study.

The results of the upcoming study will be reviewed by the Midlands Council of Governments and Forest Acres. Poole added that the Council of Governments could but isn’t guaranteed to pay for the actual work that the study ends up recommending.

“We’ll cross that bridge when it comes,” Kibler said in response to how the city would pay for the work recommended by the study.

The city does have access to money from a tax program approved by Richland County when the Cardinal Crossing development was proposed, which allows the city to collect a portion of property taxes generated by the development up to $4 million or for 10 years, whichever comes first.

Greenwood said the city collects roughly $375,000 per year from that program.