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Highway 17: Median planners say coalition hasn’t presented its alternative

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

While Georgetown County Council got a third pitch last week from opponents of a project to eliminate the paved median on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district, traffic planners say they have yet to see a formal presentation of a proposed alternative. The leader of the opposition thinks its an issue of semantics, but will make sure their plan gets into the right hands.

Construction is due to start this fall to replace the two-way left-turn lane with a raised median on 1.9 miles of highway from Baskervill Drive to Waverly Road. Traffic signals will be added at the Pawleys Island Post Office and the Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive intersection. Left turns and U-turns will be allowed at those intersections and 14 other breaks in the median.

The Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway hired a traffic engineer to review the state Department of Transportation’s plans for the $3.75 million median project, which has approval from Georgetown County as part of its long-range plan. The engineer, Eric Tripi, said the crash data used in planning the project doesn’t justify a project on the scale that DOT proposes. He came up with an alternative that keeps 12 segments of the two-way left-turn lane and places 13 landscaped areas of varying length between them.

Traffic signals will be placed later, according to the coalition’s plan, which adds detail to a concept first announced in the fall.

Mark Howeler, senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, which approved funds for the median project, said he first saw the coalition’s alternative the day before it was presented to County Council. It was delivered to his office at Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments by hand, but he said he doesn’t know who delivered it.

County Council members have said the coalition should present its alternatives for Hoeweler so he can pass them on to DOT and its consultants. Hoeweler said, “I forwarded everything that was new.”

“I haven’t had any official presentation,” said Leah Quattlebaum, the project manager for the state Department of Transportation. She was aware of the alternative, but said nothing was submitted to the agency.

The contract for the project is due to be let in the summer. The final plan must be in place three months before that, which she said would be the end of March.

“We’ve already acquired most of the right of way,” she said.

Rick Day, a principal with Stantec, the engineering firm that created the median plan for DOT, said he hasn’t seen the coalition’s alternative, either.

“I’m still comfortable with our plan,” Day said.

The Citizens Coalition says the plan was based on incomplete data about accidents in the median project area. It filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Highway Patrol incident reports and found fewer accidents than claimed by DOT. Of those, most occurred near existing traffic signals at Waverly and Martin Luther King roads.

Day said Stantec used summary crash data and the more detailed incident reports in developing the project.

“This has gotten very frustrating,” said Steve Goggans, who chairs the Citizens Coalition.

He said the draft of an alternative was given to the Chamber of Commerce president, Brian Tucker, in November so he could give it to Hoeweler and open further discussions. Tucker was hired last month as the county economic development director.

The coalition assumed the information delivered to Hoeweler last week would be delivered to the regional study committee when it met Friday, Goggans said.

“Our focus has obviously been County Council and will remain County Council,” he said.

The coalition doesn’t believe either DOT to the study committee will act to change the median plan without a request from Georgetown County, Goggans said.

“We’ve never sought to totally stop the project,” he said. “Admittedly, some of the design changes are significant.”

He also acknowledged more information is needed to create a working plan for the coalition’s proposal. But Goggans said the coalition will make a formal request for its alternative to be reviewed.

The median project was first proposed as a way to maintain the flow of traffic through the Pawleys Island area without widening Highway 17 to six lanes. A second phase is proposed for the area from Waverly Road south to Tyson Drive.

A recent report by the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study shows that portion of the highway will continue to become congested over the next 20 years in spite of the improvements. As of 2012, the highway was already at 93 percent of capacity. It will exceed its capacity of 33,600 vehicles a day by more than a third in 2035, according to the report. That will give it a “level of service” of E on a scale where F equates to stop-and-go traffic. The highway is currently rated C.

The area of Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck with the highest congestion is the bypass through Murrells Inlet, which already exceeds capacity. It is rated D for service and the average speed is 36 mph in the 45 mph zone. This section of highway is projected to reach level F by 2035.

The report was prepared for the federal government, which requires local highway planners to factor congestion into decisions on road planning. Hoeweler said that’s already done by the regional transportation study group. “It’s a guarantee to the feds that we’re actually looking at congestion,” he said.

All of Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck is proposed for widening under the study group’s long-range plan. But Hoeweler said any decision to carry out such a project would depend on a recommendation from Georgetown County Council.

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