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Highway 17: County officials say alternate median plan too late

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

With an alternative plan for the median on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district and a report on accidents along that stretch of highway, a citizens group hopes to convince Georgetown County Council to take another look at a state project due to start construction next year.

Local council members say they aren’t the ones who need to review the information. It needs to go to the state Department of Transportation.

“We’re almost two years into this thing now,” Council Member Bob Anderson said. “They’re a year and a half too late.”

“The public comment period closed May 25, 2012,” Council Member Jerry Oakley said. “It has been reviewed and reviewed and reviewed.”

But they say any alternative to the state plan to install a raised median along Highway 17 can be sent to the state DOT project manager through the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study staff.

“I’d be glad to look at it and pass it along,” said Mark Hoeweler, the senior staff member for the study group.

The Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway proposes to use sections of landscaped median interspersed with two-way left-turn lanes. That would provide left-turn access for businesses and prevent vehicles from traveling in the median.

The $3.75 million DOT plan would limit left turns across the median to 16 places. U-turns would be required to reach some destinations. The plan would also add traffic signals in front of the post office and at the Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive intersections. Those signals would be computerized along with the existing signals at Waverly and Martin Luther King roads to provide gaps in the traffic to facilitate turns.

“The agenda for this project is a S.C. DOT agenda, and the agenda is clear. That agenda is obviously about through traffic flow and has little to do with safety,” said Steve Goggans, who chairs the coalition.

Only three or four accidents a year would be eliminated by installing a raised median, according to Eric Tripi, an engineer with Itiris, a global traffic engineering firm. He was hired by the coalition to review the DOT project.

Tripi looked at crash data for the project area, 1.8 miles of Highway between the Waverly Road intersection and Baskervill Drive. While the DOT project report says there were 95 accidents in the area between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2010, Tripi said he found only 74. Only seven of those involved a vehicle making a left turn from a side street or driveway, or a left turn across traffic, situations that would have been “correctible” with a raised median.

The DOT report, created by the engineering firm Stantec, also cited 203 accidents in the project area from 2007 through 2011. “This is nearly twice the statewide average for roadways that compare to U.S. 17,” the report states. Tripi didn’t have data for 2007, but in the four years starting in 2008 there were 94 accidents in the area. To reach the 203 would have meant 109 crashes occurred in 2007. Tripi thinks that is unlikely because the most crashes in any of the other years was 29.

“This overstatement of crashes may have had an influence on the ultimate development and design of the median concept plan,” Tripi said.

Tripi doesn’t believe the DOT plan will make Highway 17 less safe, unlike some coalition members. But he questions whether the raised median is actually needed. He noted that nearly a quarter of the accidents occur at the Waverly Road traffic light.

“There is a small number of crashes that will be prevented by a median,” he said.

Based on that information, gleaned from Highway Patrol incident reports that the engineers for the DOT project didn’t use, Goggans said he hoped that Anderson, whose district includes the project area, would take another look at the project.

“We submit that councilman Anderson didn’t have access to all of the facts” in supporting the DOT plan, Goggans said. “We invite councilman Anderson to revisit his analysis, in light of the many negative impacts this design will visit on our community.”

“If they think they’ve got issues with crash data, they need to take it up with GSATS and DOT,” Anderson said. “I’ve done my due diligence.”

Oakley serves on the transportation study’s policy committee, which includes local government officials from around the region. They approve the allocation of federal funds for local transportation projects. His advice to the coalition: “Get it to Mark Hoeweler, who can instantly get it to the people who can make a decision.”

The median project, the first of two phases that will eventually extend down Highway 17 past the South Causeway intersection, was part of the county’s transportation improvement plan. It moved up the priority list of projects to receive funding based on both its impact on traffic flow and safety.

“The main scoring criteria are congestion relief and safety,” Hoeweler said. “That allowed it to move ahead of other projects.”

Tripi believes the alternative plan meets the safety requirement by designating where left turns can be made. The plan is only conceptual, so the precise location of those turns could change. Like the DOT plan, they will be based on traffic volumes.

“There’s still a lot of analysis to do,” Tripi said. That could take another two or three months.

The alternate plan would also consider where traffic from Highway 17 should connect with side streets that parallel the highway, Tripi said. Opponents of the DOT proposal say it cuts off access to the side streets west of the highway.

Along with preserving two-way left-turn lanes in portions of the median, the Citizens Coalition’s alternative plan calls for restricting the number of driveways along the right side of the highway. Not only would that improve traffic flow along the highway, it would create opportunities for pedestrian improvements.

“Pawleys Island can, in fact, become a walkable community,” Goggans said.

Hoeweler said there wasn’t much call from the public for sidewalks during the design process. But he added that projects that address multiple modes of transportation score well in the funding process, “so walking is good.”

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