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An unhappy median: DOT rejects coalition’s proposed changes

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Changes recommended by an engineer hired by opponents of a plan that will eliminate the paved median on Highway 17 through the Pawleys Island business district have been reviewed and rejected by the project’s planners.

The state Department of Transportation is preparing plans to install a raised median along 1.9 miles of Highway 17 from Baskervill Drive to Waverly Road in 2014. The project includes two new traffic signals and breaks in the median to allow left turns and U-turns at selected locations.

A group of area businesses formed the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway to oppose the project and hired a traffic engineer to propose alternatives. Those include moving the location of traffic signals proposed for the Pawleys Island Post Office and the intersection of Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive to intersections at Tiller Drive and Parkersville Road.

“We have reviewed the letter and found that there is really no new information provided in it,” said Leah Quattlebaum, the project manager for DOT. “We are comfortable with our analysis and the public involvement process that we followed in order to develop our final design that we have today.”

Eric Tripi, the traffic engineer who prepared the alternatives, said “a balance needs to be struck between access and mobility.” He suggested either eliminating the raised median better managing access to the highway; changing the location of the new traffic signals; or using islands rather than a continuous median to prevent vehicles from traveling in the median.

Tripi questioned whether the data used to support the location of traffic lights at the post office and the Hotel/Jetty intersection met the state’s criteria. And even if it did, “there appears to be value in looking at other locations for traffic signals that may better serve the adjacent land uses,” he said.

Quattlebaum pointed out that three options for signal locations were presented at two public meetings in the winter of 2012. “Location at that time was still being determined,” she said. “We went through the process and we developed the plans and we’re moving forward.”

Organized opposition to the median closure didn’t emerge until August. Opponents admit they should have been involved sooner, but say that doesn’t diminish the validity of their concerns. Chief among those is a fear that restricting left turns will harm area businesses.

“At this point, you can change things to appease one group, but another group that had [access] would feel the same way as this group that’s opposing it,” Quattlebaum said.

She agreed with Tripi that balance is the key, but said that was taken into account by the project planners.

“The concept report shows that these two [signal] locations have the highest traffic counts,” Quattlebaum said. “They provide as much connectivity as we thought appropriate. All that went into play. It wasn’t just a random occurrence.”

Tripi also questioned whether accident data used to justify the project design was detailed enough. “It is our understanding that the crash data used in the analysis was compiled from crash summaries and not the actual police reports,” he said.

There were 203 accidents in the project area from Jan. 1, 2007, through Nov. 30, 2011, twice the state average for a comparable road, according to the DOT study.

“We had the individual police reports,” Quattlebaum said. “Our consultant did review those and incorporate that into their analysis.”

The Citizens Coalition sought that information through a request to DOT under the state Freedom of Information Act. It only received the summary data. Quattlebaum said she doesn’t keep the accident reports in her office. “I had the summary so that is what they were given,” she said. “That analysis did take into account the detailed accident reports.”

The proposed median will be a 6-inch high “curb and gutter with a landscaped area,” she said. “It’s not a 4- to 5-foot-high median.”

She acknowledged that the landscaping won’t be on the scale of the Highway 17 corridor in Litchfield. Much of that was planted in the late 1980s. “A lot of Litchfield landscaping doesn’t meet today’s regulations,” she said.

The median at Pawleys Island is also narrower, but “there are certain size plants you can put in there for this size median,” Quattlebaum said. “The final design hasn’t been done yet. It will have to be agreed upon with the county and the groups that would be maintaining it.”

While the Citizens Coalition has tried unsuccessfully to get Georgetown County Council to halt the project, Quattlebaum said the county is a partner.

“The development of this project has been a joint effort between Georgetown County, the [Grand Strand Area Transportation Study], DOT as well as the public that chose to be involved during the public involvement process,” Quattlebaum said. “At this point, we’re all working together and if any significant changes have to be made it would need to be agreed upon by all groups.”

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