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Highway 17: DOT studies concerns, but won’t halt median project

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The state Department of Transportation will review concerns received this week from Pawleys Island business owners about a plan to eliminate the paved median on Highway 17 from Waverly Road to Baskervill Drive. But it won’t scrap the project or leave the median open for unrestricted left-hand turns.

Although DOT held a series of meetings about the project in the spring, a group of business owners began circulating petitions to halt the project in August saying they either weren’t aware of the meetings or didn’t have adequate opportunity to comment.

The project originated with a 2003 study of the Highway 17 corridor through Waccamaw Neck. Median consolidation is a way to ensure the highway maintains its carrying capacity without adding more lanes, said Leah Quattlebaum, the project manager for DOT. “Highway 17 has problems,” she said, and similar projects have been done elsewhere.

The $2.5 million project at Pawleys Island would add traffic lights at the post office and at the Hotel Drive/Jetty View intersection. It would create a raised median with some landscaping and 12 median breaks allowing vehicles to turn across traffic or make U-turns.

David Gundling, an attorney with an office at Pawleys Business Center who has helped organize opposition to the project, said there is concern that the U-turns won’t be safe and that without being able to make left turns into businesses many customers will just keep on going.

He and six other area business owners and three Parkersville residents met with state and county officials this week to outline their concerns. “We really didn’t get much input before the design started,” Gundling said.

Steve Goggans, an architect whose office is also in Pawleys Business Center, said many of the streets that serve local traffic west of Highway 17 are cut off by the median closure. “The [traffic] light locations leave me a little flummoxed,” he said.

Tiller Drive serves a variety of service businesses west of the highway, but it is a right-in, right-out intersection under the plan. Traffic heading north would have to make a U-turn or turn at Hotel Drive and double back to reach Tiller, he said.

As for the light at the post office, “that traffic has continued to decline. Whether that post office will be there in 20 years is hard to tell,” Goggans said.

Rick Day, a principal at Stantec Consulting which is designing the project, said the post office is the top generator of traffic onto Highway 17. Second to that is traffic from the Hinnant Lane/Canaan Seashore intersection.

Placing the second light at Hotel Drive will also serve businesses and homes along Jetty View Drive, Day said. Tiller Drive is too close to the post office for there to be a light at both intersections.

The Hotel Drive light also gives access to Parkersville Road, which was a concern of residents. John Burgess, who lives in Parkersville, said they are also concerned that the median plan will put more traffic on neighborhood streets and pose a hazard for children.

Mark Hoeweler, planning director at Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments, said the new lights will use technology to adapt to demand and coordinate red lights.

Micky Stikas, owner of the Village Shops, and Jan Devereaux, a partner in Downtown Pawleys, the Island Shops and Waverly Place, said reduced left-turn access will hurt business. They suggested creating short, landscaped islands to prevent drivers using the median as a travel lane, saying that would also preserve access for left turns.

“There are common sense solutions that allow people to get around and won’t destroy property values,” Stikas said.

He told the project designers that he believes reducing the speed limit from 45 to 35 mph would solve many of the problems with the highway through Pawleys Island. “Those trucks go blowing through there at 65 miles an hour,” Stikas said.

Day said reducing the speed limit would increase congestion.

County Council Member Bob Anderson pressed Day and Brett Gillis, who is designing the project for Stantec, about the speed limit.

Gillis said traffic delays are caused by “a myriad of conflict points,” where cars enter the highway.

He agreed that lower speeds would reduce capacity.

“You’re an engineer,” Anderson said, “it would just slow the capacity.”

“Speed alone is not going to change the safety,” he said.

Stikas and Mike Redmond, an engineer with an office in Pawleys Business Center, said the goal seems to be to facilitate through-traffic rather than look out for the needs of the community.

“It seems the whole focus is getting people from Myrtle Beach to Charleston,” Goggans said.

The goal, Day said, “is to protect the capacity that’s out there today as well as make it a safer road.”

With an average of 29,000 vehicles using the road each day, the paved median, sometimes called the “suicide lane” but also known as a two-way left-turn lane, is no longer a safe design, Day said. Figures from the state Department of Public Safety show a higher-than-average number of accidents in the area, he said.

Using landscaped islands “would really be more of a hazard,” he said.

Stikas wasn’t convinced. “Who do I go to to fight this?” he asked.

Gundling also said he wasn’t clear about who is responsible for the project. He tried to get DOT to stop it, but was referred to County Council, which refused to take up the issue.

Quattlebaum said DOT hired Stantec to design the project, but “there are many stakeholders.”

That includes the public, but “a lot of it is more than public opinion,” she said. “A lot of analysis went into it.”

“Give us a little bit of time and we will come back and address your concerns,” Quattlebaum said.

DOT planned to start acquiring right-of-way in January. Construction is still a year off, she said.

Day said he believes some of the issues can be addressed. “We’ll continue to polish the project,” he said.

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