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Highway 17: Opposition to median closure prepares alternatives

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A northbound Honda Civic pulled into the turning lane on Highway 17 in front of Fresh Market one afternoon last week. After waiting for a break in southbound traffic, the driver crossed the highway and pulled around a concrete island that’s meant to prevent left-hand turns. Instead of driving to Hotel Drive on the north side of the shopping center, the driver took the most direct route.

For people on both sides of a debate over a state Department of Transportation project that will install a raised median along Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district that turn has meaning.

“I’ve seen that move made,” said Mark Hoeweler, assistant director of Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments. He coordinates projects for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, which includes the median. “It tells me that it wasn’t designed properly.”

The concrete island was required by Georgetown County to limit that intersection to right-in, right-out turns for Fresh Market. Hoeweler said the driver may have committed to the left turn without realizing the intersection was intended to prevent it. With a stop light proposed for Hotel Drive and a raised median, the correct entrance would be more apparent, he said.

“It’s a wonderful illustration,” said Steve Goggans, owner of SGA Architecture and a member of the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway, which opposes the current median proposal.

“If you look at Federal Highway Administration studies you can find studies on this type of U-turn. In some cases there is improved traffic flow and a reduction in accidents. In some cases,” Goggans said. “It also says there is driver confusion.”

The plan for the 1.9 miles of Highway 17 from Baskervill Drive to Waverly Road calls for installing a raised median with 20 breaks for left turns and U-turns, nine for northbound and 11 for southbound traffic.

“Take away the inconvenience to business and all the other problems. In a community where you have a lot of tourists and a lot of elderly drivers, it doesn’t make sense to add to the confusion,” Goggans said. “It’s nuts.”

The coalition has hired Eric Tripi, a traffic engineer with Iteris, a national traffic management firm, to review the plans for the Highway 17 median and recommend changes.

“We don’t like to see that,” he said of the Civic’s exaggerated U-turn into Fresh Market. “I don’t know if it’s just not clear. I would think it would be fairly obvious.”

Tripi is working on alternatives to the plan created for DOT by Rick Day of Stantec, who like Tripi is based in Charleston. Those are due to be presented at a community forum sponsored by the coalition June 20 at Waccamaw High School.

“There are two things in play,” Tripi said. “Access and mobility. It’s a delicate balance.”

DOT says there were 203 reported accidents in the project area between 2007 and 2011, twice the number reported on roads with similar characteristics. Tripi said the raised median and limited left turns will make the highway safer.

“On the other hand, it may interfere with business and convenience of access,” he said. “The things we’re looking at are the things out there that can be improved without being as restrictive as this conceptual plan.”

The project is difficult because the stakeholders have different objectives, he said. For business owners, it’s access. For residents, it may be convenience.

The Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway plans to ask County Council next week to delay the plan. A similar effort by members of the coalition last fall was rebuffed. Council members say it isn’t up to them to change the plan. The county is part of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study and the median project was approved by the council.

Hoeweler said he gets regular calls about the project and has been at several meetings with the various state and local agencies that have a role in the project. The design phase is nearing completion and construction is scheduled for 2014.

“We’ve been in this dialogue phase for over a year,” he said. “Every change you make is going to affect someone.”

After meeting with a group of business owners last fall, the project was changed to include a turning apron on Highway 17 to accommodate trucks that service Pawleys Island Lumber. That required obtaining right-of-way at The Enclave development at the east end of Martin Luther King Drive.

“I was totally unaware of this project,” said Mindy McVay, who owns the land proposed for the turning apron. “I thought I was going to faint.”

Instead, she contacted state and local officials.

Hoeweler said a subsequent count of truck traffic didn’t justify the cost of acquiring McVay’s property. It has now been dropped.

It was DOT that made the change, McVay said. “I got my issue straightened out. Now I’m trying to help other people,” she said. “It’s still horrible for everybody.”

“If we can make a change and it makes sense, everybody would like the best possible project,” Hoeweler said.

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