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Highway 17: DOT looks for public input on median closure plan

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Improvements to Highway 17 between Waverly Road and Baskervill Drive, including the proposed closing of the paved median, will be the subject of a public input meeting next week in Pawleys Island.

The two-way left turn lane, commonly called the “suicide lane” for the danger it creates when drivers use it improperly, will be replaced with a landscaped median, according to regional traffic plans.

Transportation planners want to get public comment on where the breaks in the median should be placed. The meeting is set for 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Waccamaw Elementary School.

The plans for replacing the paved median, a project of the S.C. Department of Transportation, date back to a study done about a decade ago as part of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, a regional effort to direct spending of state highway funds.

“We had done a corridor study previously for the South Strand that came down to the [Georgetown] county line in Murrells Inlet and dealt with treatments on Business 17. People in Georgetown County who were part of GSATS liked the idea and wanted something similar for our area, so we did one,” said Mark Hoeweler, assistant executive director for Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments.

The study generated a number of inexpensive, low-tech solutions for access management, which have been implemented through County Council actions and the county planning department. There was no funding at the time to implement more costly solutions, but “now we’re getting to the point where funding is available,” Hoeweler said.

Filling in the paved median with landscaping emerged from the study as a viable alternative to widening Highway 17, something residents were — and still are — overwhelmingly opposed to.

“We took it as our task to come up with alternatives that could lengthen the utility of Highway 17 as far into the future as we could before adding lanes,” Hoeweler said.

The $2.5 million median project is scheduled to be complete by 2014 and is being looked at as a kind of pilot project, Hoeweler told residents in a meeting last year. If it’s successful, medians between the North Causeway and the South Causeway might also be filled in.

The project will improve traffic operations and aesthetics along the Highway 17 corridor, but more importantly, it will increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers.

“That’s where it’s really unsafe,” said Rick Day, principal and engineer with Stantec, the consulting firm hired for the project. “People crossing the street wait in the turn lanes and sometimes at night, drivers don’t see them. It’s a real safety concern when traffic volumes get as high as they are.”

The public meeting will be the first big step in moving ahead with the project.

The meeting will start with a formal presentation describing the project corridor and current traffic concerns, including traffic congestion and crash rates. Following will be informal group discussions about potential roadway improvements.

Design efforts will be based on feedback from the meeting and engineering evaluations.

“We’ve collected a lot of data analyses, but there won’t be a proposed concept,” Day said. “We want to make sure we get public input first, before we get too far into putting pen to paper. We want to be very thoughtful and careful with this, because this is important. It’s important to the region and those who live and work there that this road works.”

Day and Hoeweler promise there will also be opportunities for public involvement as design work progresses.

“We want to work with the citizens to make this a success and we’ll take whatever time it requires to make that happen,” Day said.

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