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Highway 17: Median plan opponents look to county for changes

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Area business owners who oppose a plan to eliminate the paved median on Highway 17 through the Pawleys Island business district have spent months trying to find some level of government to make changes to the project. They are now back where they started: trying to convince Georgetown County Council to step in.

The state Department of Transportation is drawing up plans to replace the paved median along 1.9 miles of Highway 17 from Baskervill Drive to Waverly Road with a raised median. There will be 20 breaks in the median for left turns and U-turns: nine on the northbound side and 11 on the southbound side.

Business owners who oppose the plan say they fear it will make it hard for their customers to get to them. They also question whether it will make the highway safer.

But they failed to convince Georgetown County Council to delay the project and commission a local task force to review the project. That was in September.

County Council said it was a state project approved by the local body that oversees highway projects, the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study Policy Committee.

Opponents sought information from the state Department of Transportation through an Freedom of Information Act request. That led them to decide that it is Georgetown County that has authority to delay the project.

“It is apparent that County Council does have a significant role in this project,” said David Gundling, an attorney who helped organize the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway. The group is campaigning under the banner “Don’t Strip the Neck,” saying the median project will encourage strip commercial development.

“People think it’s going to be a landscaping project like Litchfield,” said Steve Goggans, owner of SGA Architecture and another coalition organizer.

He and Gundling met for two hours last week with County Council Members Jerry Oakley and Bob Anderson along with state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, a member of the transportation study committee; Mike Wooten, the 1st District DOT commissioner; and DOT staff and consultants.

“It was totally worthless in my opinion,” Anderson said.

He doesn’t think the council is responsible for the project, but said he’s willing to listen if the opponents have a better alternate plan.

The coalition has hired Eric Tripi, a highway engineer, to create that alternate plan. But Goggans said Tripi hasn’t been able to get crash data that he says should be the basis for any plan.

“Our guy’s kind of scratching his head,” Goggans said. But he will develop an alternative and the coalition plans to hold a public meeting next month to present it.

It’s still not clear who might make a decision based on that study.

DOT gets a management fee for the project, funded with state and federal money, but it isn’t a DOT project, state Sen. Ray Cleary said.

“People in the county say it’s a DOT project,” he said, but the project manager doesn’t have authority to make changes.

The project was created as part of the county transportation plan and approved by the Grand Strand transportation study committee. “GSATS won’t change it for two or three people,” Cleary said. “They will look to Georgetown County.”

Wooten said the DOT commission won’t address the project unless there’s a permitting issue. “Of course, this is a GSATS project,” he said.

“This is not our project,” Anderson said. “We’re not managing the funding, we’re not managing the project.” Those are the roles filled by DOT.

The opponents, he said, “want to leave it like it is, and we can’t do that.”

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