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Highway 17: DOT maps route for county to halt median work

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A letter from a state DOT official sets June 27 as the date if Georgetown County Council wants to halt a project to install a raised median on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district. The letter was released by state Sen. Ray Cleary in response to criticism of his statement to opponents of the project that the county has authority over the fate of the median.

Public debate over the issue of responsibility for the project revived this spring when Steve Goggans, one of the median opponents, filed to run for County Council against incumbent Bob Anderson, who has said that limiting left turns from the highway will improve safety. Anderson got a letter last month from Leah Quattlebaum, the DOT project manager, in response to questions about the county’s ability to stop the project. No statutes require the agency to get county approval for the project, she wrote. A week later, Cleary also posed some questions to Quattlebaum. He got an answer that was nearly identical, but then went a step farther. “If the county wishes to stop the project from proceeding to construction, they can request that GSATS vote to remove the remaining funding,” she wrote. “This action would need to be recommended by the GSATS study team and then voted by the policy committee for approval prior to June 27, 2014, which is the date that the Federal Highway Administration is scheduled to authorize construction funding.”

GSATS is the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, a planning group that represents local governments in the region and sets the spending priorities for federal transportation funds.

Cleary said in an interview and in a letter to the editor that the letter from Quattlebaum confirms what he told median opponents a year ago. The GSATS committee, which includes a representative of Georgetown County, is the key, he said. Cleary also got a letter from Christy Hall, the interim head of DOT, that confirms that position. “The county certainly has the option to request that the project be stopped,” Hall wrote. “If that is their desire, this should be done in a timely manner and must be done through the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study.”

Anderson is trying to shift the blame for the median project, which business owners fear will impact their customers, from County Council to DOT, Cleary said. “In the end, Mr. Anderson and the County Council, as the letters prove, are the only organizations that can make a difference at this point,” he said.

Anderson said he based his position on a legal opinion that county government can’t tell state agencies what to do. “All I had to go on is what I was told,” he said. Though he doesn’t doubt the process outlined by the DOT officials, Anderson said he wouldn’t change his position on the median.

“My first responsibility to the people in my district, in my county and the people who travel the highway is safety,” he said. “Safety’s first. I know there’s a problem with Highway 17 going through Pawleys Island.”

“If it costs me my job, so be it,” Anderson added.

The Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway, which Goggans once led, hired a traffic engineer to review accident data in the median project area. “Not that many accidents are caused by the median,” Goggans said. “I think it’s a specious argument. If he wants to listen to the concerns of the citizens, he will take this opportunity to sit down and revisit the project.”

“I made up my mind a long time ago. I would not stop the project if I could,” Anderson said. “It may not be a total solution, but it’s a step in the right direction. I trust the traffic engineers.”

He doesn’t doubt GSATS would vote to halt funding, since other jurisdictions in the study would like to divvy up the $3.75 million in funding.

“If the project does not advance to construction, it is important to note that [the highway administration] could request reimbursement of funds that have been spent to date,” Quattlebaum told Cleary.

Mark Hoeweler, the senior staff member for GSATS, said at least $700,000 has been spent so far.

Opponents don’t want to stop the project, just redesign it, Goggans said. “Let’s take what’s there and work with it,” he said.

The design for the 1.8 miles of highway is now final, the contract will be let in August and construction is expected to start in October.

Anderson and Goggans are on the ballot for the Republican primary in June. No Democrat has filed. They will be on the agenda Monday at a meeting of the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations. So will Cleary, who isn’t up for re-election this year, and the candidates for House District 108, Republican Rep. Stephen Goldfinch and Democrat Vida Miller.

The District 6 candidates will also speak to the Georgetown County Republican Women’s Club on May 27.

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