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DOT says county input on median welcome

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

If Georgetown County doesn’t want the S.C. Department of Transportation to install a median cut on Bypass 17 in front of Woodside Village, county officials need to let the agency know, says Michael Bethea, district traffic engineer.

DOT doesn’t have to consider the county’s traffic standards as it looks at installing the median cut, which has already been endorsed by the secretary of transportation. But that doesn’t mean it won’t, Bethea said.

“I’m not sure how it’s going to be handled,” he explained. “Usually, if the county has stricter standards, we defer to those, but I don’t know if this has ever come up before. I don’t know what the ultimate outcome will be.”

At this point, DOT hasn’t heard from the county what its position on the median is, Bethea said.

“Are they opposed?” he asked. “I’m not aware of our having received anything from them about it. I know there have been articles about it and things like that, but the last I heard there hasn’t been anything written to the highway department where they’re really opposed to it.

“I’m not sure how it will play out, but they probably need to get something to us if they’re opposed to it,” he added.

County Council Member Jerry Oakley said he sent a letter about the issue to DOT late last week through state Sen. Ray Cleary of Murrells Inlet. The letter, written by Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, states the median cut isn’t needed and violates the access management standards the county adopted in 2004 to help minimize traffic congestion.

The standards require that medians on Highway 17 be at least 2,640 feet apart. The proposed median cut would fail to meet those standards by about 1,880 feet, according to Johnson.

“SCDOT was very much involved in the formulation of the county’s regulations,” Johnson wrote, adding that the regulations specify that when “the standards of this ordinance are in conflict with [DOT’s] access and roadside management standards, the more restrictive requirements shall apply.”

Johnson was unavailable for comment, but County Administrator Sel Hemingway said Johnson spoke with DOT about the proposed cut. He said Mark Hoeweler, planning director for Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments “has expressed his disappointment to DOT for not consulting with the county.”

Hoeweler was involved in creating the access management standards. He said the process was a joint effort between the county and DOT.

“I think both entities saw the benefits in coming up with a stricter policy for the area,” Hoeweler said.

Hoeweler said he hasn’t had any “official correspondence” with DOT about the matter.

“It was sort of an exchange of information and asking questions,” he said. “I’m waiting to see how things shake out. Really, this is an issue between the county and DOT at this point.”

According to Oakley, the proposed cut “should be a county issue, but it’s not, which is the entire problem.”

The matter, he said, is an excellent example of the problems with home rule, which provides local governments those powers not expressly forbidden by state law.

“The things people expect from local government, in many cases, it can’t provide, because it doesn’t have the authority to do so,” Oakley said.

That is the case in this instance, he said.

It was state Sen. Yancey McGill of Kingstree who approached the secretary of transportation about the median cut and asked the County Transportation Committee to approve $85,000 for the project.

The committee is appointed by the legislative delegation. In 1996, when reapportionment left the county with one resident legislator, power was given to County Council. The delegation took the authority back in 2001.

County Council Member Glen O’Connell acknowledges the committee deals with state funds, but said it also makes decisions about the same roads council deals with when it makes decisions on how to spend the county’s road user fee.

“We’re in a better position to be on top of this situation,” O’Connell said. “Not to be critical of the delegation, but County Council members are just closer to the situation.”

In his views about home rule, Oakley quotes an old adage: Government closest to the people governs best.

“Home rule is more than just a good concept, in practice home rule will consistently deliver a better result,” he said.

McGill, who could not be reached for comment, started work to get a median cut installed after a request by Palmetto Heritage Bank, which is building a branch on Bypass 17.

But the proposed cut isn’t the one the bank wanted. That one was rejected by DOT, and the one now under consideration was put up as an alternative.

O’Connell said he doubts the median cut would have received support from McGill if he were more familiar with the area and the effects the cut is likely to have on traffic.

Oakley said the cut is, in his opinion, “poor planning and poor traffic engineering.” Highway 17 is Waccamaw Neck’s main artery, and it’s already congested.

“Every curb cut and median cut reduces the carrying capacity of the roadway. Every traffic engineer I’ve ever known says that,” Oakley said. “Closing median cuts is one of few realistic options we have to try to mitigate the congestion.”

Last month, the group that sets regional transportation priorities agreed to spend $2.5 million to close two-way medians on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island area. Plans are to eventually extend the project to include Bypass 17. If that happens, the disputed median cut would likely be taken out.

“While I understand why some of those businesses would want that median cut, really I wonder if they took a hard, long-term look at it, would they still want it?” Oakley said.

Oakley and O’Connell say they also have a problem with the fact that McGill asked the transportation committee to approve funds for the median cut “on behalf of the delegation,” when there was no record of a vote by the delegation.

In a previous interview, McGill said the matter hadn’t been discussed in a delegation meeting, but he made the request on behalf of the delegation because he had spoken individually with the other members.

McGill said he hadn’t done anything wrong. He said he regularly sends out letters on behalf of the delegation for traffic improvements.

“It was a request and I was trying to help a group of business people,” he said.

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