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Highway 17: Fear and skepticism meet head-on in debate over median closure

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Joanne Bellamy isn’t sure if tearing up the paved median that runs through Pawleys Island on Highway 17 is the answer to traffic problems on the roadway.

Whether it is or not, “we’ve got to do something,” she said. And she’s hopeful highway officials are on the right track. She was reassured after talking with them on Tuesday night at a meeting about the median plans and learning they want to work with the public on whatever they do.

“I think it’s going to be all right,” Bellamy, who lives across from the Island Shops, said as the meeting wrapped up in the cafeteria of Waccamaw Elementary School.

She wasn’t as sanguine when the meeting started.

Bellamy was one of 66 people who attended the meeting, arranged to gather public input on the project. Opinions ranged from enthusiasm to contempt.

The plan involves replacing the two-way turn lane in the median from the North Causeway to Baskervill Drive, with a grass median similar to what exists in Litchfield. That type of median is more appropriate to the area given its current traffic volume. On average, about 29,000 vehicles a day travel that section of highway. For the summer months, the average jumps to 38,000 vehicles.

A grassed median would make the roadway safer for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, said Rick Day, principal of Stantec, the consulting firm hired to engineer the project.

He also cited studies that show similar projects in other states have not harmed businesses along the roadway, which has been a major concern as the project moves forward.

Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis questioned the validity of the studies — conducted in Texas, Iowa and Kansas — when applied to a resort area.

“They’re building on information inconsistent with our situation. Those are not big tourism areas,” Otis said.

He also questioned how much of a hazard the current setup really creates. Other than at intersections, he hasn’t seen any wrecks as a result of the two-way turn lane, he said.

Some at the meeting talked about close calls in the median, seeing vehicles use it as a passing lane or travel on it for long distances before actually turning. One woman talked about how scary it is when cars going in opposite directions try to use the median to accelerate into traffic.

Otis suggested that because all the locals know the median’s reputation as the “suicide lane,” drivers are more careful, which helps prevent accidents.

“Nobody has shown us definitively how the existing situation is broken and how this is going to fix it,” Otis said. “I can be convinced, but I’m not convinced.”

The median takes a lot of blame for creating dangerous situations when that blame should be directed at drivers, Bellamy said.

“If you know how to use it, it’s not a suicide lane.”

She sees people driving down the road putting on eye makeup, texting and even reading books or newspapers, she said.

“I’ve probably seen just about everything you can think of over 17 years of driving up and down that highway, and responding to calls,” said Todd Blomdahl of Midway Fire and Rescue. “I’ve never been in an accident there, but the reason for that I think is because I believe everybody out there is trying to hit me. With that attitude I’m always watching out.”

But he pointed out that accidents happen everywhere, including parking lots.

His primary concern about the project, as part of Midway, is where median breaks will be installed and the impact that could have on Midway’s response times.

“We may have to respond to an elderly community 100 times versus one person who wants a median break at a business they go to one time,” Blomdahl said. “There needs to be a good balance between the business community and emergency response to our actual communities.”

Plans for where median cuts will be positioned haven’t been made. Engineers wanted to get suggestions from the public first, Day said.

Jan Devereux, who owns multiple properties on the west side of Highway 17 along that section, said she thinks the placement of breaks will have a major impact on how the project is perceived.

By the time breaks are installed everywhere they need to be, “there would be just little patches of green,” she predicted. “It would be so broken up, it wouldn’t have much purpose.”

Initially, she liked an idea proposed by Dr. Victor Archambeau to direct funds to improving alternate routes for local traffic instead of changing the median. But because Highway 17 also serves as Main Street for the Pawleys Island area, it’s mostly local traffic that stops at businesses on Highway 17, so they need to be on that route. There might be a way to divert through traffic instead, she suggested.

Devereux and others she has talked to want to see statistics on how many wrecks occur in or because of the median and how much of the traffic volume on the highway is local. “They should have had that at the meeting,” she said. Most people she has talked to say there aren’t very many wrecks that occur in the median and don’t mind the median the way it is, she added.

Jeanette Rosenbaum of Ricefields can’t wait for the project to be complete. She once had a wreck in the median. She was injured and her Mercedes was totaled when another car pulled in front of her near the North Causeway and hit her vehicle head on.

She said she is now more careful about where she makes left turns across traffic on Highway 17, something grassed medians would force motorists to do more often.

“I can’t imagine anybody not wanting this,” she said of the project. Between the safety and beautification benefits, it seems like common sense to her. The existing median is “terrible. It is a suicide lane,” she said, remarking that she often sees bicyclists there and prays for them to make it safely across. Grassed medians will be more fitting for the area. “Just drive up to Litchfield and see the success there and how could you say no to this?”

But Micky Stikas, who owns the Village Shops, disagrees.

“The road and the development around the road was never designed with this in mind,” he said. “If we’re looking for pretty, the area wasn’t developed for pretty. We don’t have the service roads and frontage roads to give people access ... I like pretty too, but sometimes it has to take a back seat to what’s practical.”

He doesn’t think median breaks will be effective unless they include traffic signals, he added. “Otherwise, it will be a safety nightmare with people making U-turns.”

There probably will be some additional traffic lights as part of the project, Day said, but he doesn’t know how many.

But Stikas agrees with Archambeau that alternate routes should be what engineers are focusing on, especially after reviewing the study on which the project is based.

“I’ve got a copy of it sitting on my desk, and this was not a priority,” he said. “The primary recommendation of the study was to get traffic off of 17 and onto alternate routes.”

Alternate routes would cost tens of millions of dollars, Rosenbaum argues.

“This is a small project and we shouldn’t pass it up. We should take advantage of what’s being offered,” she said.

Engineers will move forward with design efforts based on feedback from this week’s meeting and will also meet with business owners and community groups to talk about specific concerns and get additional input.

Time slots for meetings are available March 2 and March 5. To schedule a meeting, call Jamie Hairfield, 843-740-7700.

Written comments can be mailed to Leah Quattlebaum, SCDOT, P.O. Box 191, Columbia, SC 29202.

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