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Highway 17: Median coalition will keep pressure on council

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

With 2,000 names on petitions opposing a plan for a raised median on Highway 17 through the Pawleys Island business district, members of the Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway were disappointed that only about 100 people showed up for a meeting about the project last week.

But organizers said they will continue to pressure Georgetown County Council to ask for changes to the project, which will eliminate the paved median along 1.9 miles of Highway 17 from Baskervill Drive to Waverly Road.

The council has twice declined to put an item on its agenda proposed by the coalition that would create a committee to review plans for the median project. The state Department of Transportation is acquiring rights-of-way for the project, which it plans to start next year. Restricting left turns on Highway 17 was one of several proposals contained in a 2003 study commissioned by the Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments, which provides planning services to local government. The proposals were adopted by the county in its transportation plan and approved by the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, making them eligible for federal funding that passes through the state.

The multi-layered process has left coalition members frustrated. After meetings with the consulting engineers, DOT and council members, “we weren’t able to get any resolution,” said David Gundling, an attorney and coalition organizer. “We have tried for over a year to get some sort of satisfaction.”

The coalition hired a traffic engineer to recommend changes to the median plan, which will restrict left turns to nine median breaks for southbound traffic and 11 for northbound traffic. It calls for new traffic signals at the Pawleys Island Post Office and the Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive intersection. Those lights will be synchronized with existing lights at Waverly and Martin Luther King roads.

The coalition’s engineer, Eric Tripi, suggested moving the new lights to Tiller Drive and Parkersville Road and creating additional median breaks as modifications to the current plan.

Tripi also suggested two other alternatives: scrapping the raised median and consolidating driveways to better control right-hand turns; or using “islands” instead of a continuous raised median to restrict vehicles traveling in the median but create more access to businesses along the highway.

The coalition is trying to get accident data from the state Department of Public Safety to support its recommendations. Steve Goggans, owner of SGA Architecture, believes that will show there are better ways to improve safety on Highway 17.

Although DOT’s project manager said engineers reviewed the Tripi recommendations and decided they don’t contain enough information to alter the project design, Goggans said those recommendations were not a formal proposal. That won’t come until the accident data is reviewed.

Even then, it isn’t DOT but County Council that the coalition hopes to convince. “Nobody’s going to move unless Georgetown County Council says they’re interested in making changes,” Goggans said. “Everything begins with council.”

Council Member Bob Anderson, whose district includes the median project area, said he has reviewed it with engineers and other officials. “I don’t have any issues at all with the design,” he said. “I couldn’t find any holes in the design.”

The project’s goal is to improve safety and Anderson said he believes the plan does that.

“To my knowledge, the only thing council could do is vote to stop it,” he said.

While Anderson said he won’t bring the issue to the full council, he also said there is room to negotiate on the location of the traffic signals. “I don’t care where the traffic lights are as long as we add a couple more to slow traffic down and allow left turns,” he said.

But that negotiation needs to take place with DOT or planners at Waccamaw Regional, he said.

At last week’s coalition forum, Goggans said members are “agnostic” about the location of the traffic signals. “With modest negotiations we could come to a great compromise,” he said “We’re not trying to kill the project.”

All of the speakers at the meeting said something should be done along the highway to improve safety and appearance. But they didn’t agree with the current proposal. Cathy Mason asked anyone who agreed with the project to stand up. None did.

“We need a task force to represent the people who made Pawleys Island,” she said.

Vic Mix said he started in North Myrtle Beach looking for a place to retire and rejected it because of congestion. He now lives at Allston Plantation. Improving the appearance of the Highway 17 corridor is nice, but safety and congestion should be the priorities.

“When you put in traffic lights, you create congestion,” he said.

Tom Stickler of Hagley said he liked the idea of islands rather than a continuous median. He is concerned that the plan will require drivers to make U-turns to get to some locations.

“If there’s one flaw in this whole proposition they’re working on now, it’s the U-turns,” he said.

Bob Dimesky of Pawleys Plantation said he favors a “green corridor” along Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck, “a lush, protected vacation community.”

A system of frontage roads would give better access, Dimesky said. “A frontage road gives a passerby the opportunity to visit a strip of businesses,” he said.

Dimesky also urged the coalition to go to court to block the current project. “I think we should put our foot down; put an injunction in place,” he said.

Jeanette Rosenbaum of The Reserve said she was excited when she heard about the project. “We need beautiful. We need fixing,” she said.

She believes the safety problem is caused by the combination of speeding and congestion. “People are coming through here at 65 miles an hour,” she said.

“Please don’t stop it,” Rosenbaum said. “We need to do it, but we need to do it right.”

Norman Reid, who lives in Parkersville, said he and his neighbors are concerned that the restrictions of left turns will lead to more truck traffic through their streets, just west of the highway. “We need some changes,” he said. “We in the black community will give you the support you need.”

Glenn Cox, a former County Council member who lives on Pawleys Island, said he believes citizen involvement is vital and will have an effect on the council. “They will listen to people if you bring enough pressure,” he said.

Goggans said this week the coalition is still considering strategies for keeping the issue before County Council.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll get some opportunity to sit down and seriously negotiate,” he said.

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