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Highway 17: Coalition prepares for suit over median project

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Opponents of a plan to install a raised median on Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island business district will make another pitch to Georgetown County to delay the project next week. It’s the same pitch that has been rebuffed three times before.

The Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway is preparing to go to court if its final attempt fails, said David Gundling, who chairs the group.

The plan by the state Department of Transportation to replace the two-way left-turn lane along 1.8 miles of Highway 17 north of Waverly Road with a raised median is due to go out to bid this summer. The project includes two additional traffic signals and median breaks for left turns and U-turns. Business owners are concerned the design will cause customers to go elsewhere.

The former head of the coalition, Steve Goggans, won last week’s Republican Party primary in County Council District 6. He defeated Bob Anderson, a one-term incumbent who supports the project.

“We’re hopeful council will see that as a referendum,” Gundling said.

During the campaign, Anderson circulated a letter he received from the DOT project manager, Leah Quattlebaum, saying the agency didn’t need county approval to move forward with the project although the county initiated the project as part of a range of improvements adopted in 2003 for the Highway 17 corridor.

State Sen. Ray Cleary released his own letter from Quattlebaum that added a crucial qualification: if County Council did want to stop the project, it could do so through the regional transportation study committee. The deadline is June 27, she said. That’s the date the Federal Highway Administration is due to authorize funds for the $3.75 million project.

Gundling said the coalition will ask County Council to make the request to the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study Committee to delay the project to get further public comment and revise the design. The coalition hired its own traffic engineer and last year he proposed an alternative that filled portions of the median with landscaping, but left large segments open for left turns.

“It’s clear what the community wanted,” Goggans said after the votes were counted in last week’s primary. Although there were other issues in the campaign, he said what he heard from voters was concern for “the lack of involvement on the county’s part on the details” of the median project.

Karen Yaniga, a member of the coalition who worked on the Goggans campaign, said that the concerns voters raised about the median during phone calls from the campaign were about the process. “The lack of process,” she said.

The election “was a clear mandate that people want this looked at before it moves forward,” Yaniga said. “I can’t imagine that the message didn’t come in loud and clear.”

“I can understand them saying that,” Anderson said. But the primary didn’t change his mind.

“You heard me say during the election, ‘if it costs me my job, so be it,’” he said. “If I wasn’t convinced that this was the right thing to do, do you think I would have put my job in jeopardy?”

He doesn’t believe there is support on council to seek a delay in the median project.

If Anderson is correct, the coalition has hired the Bellamy Law Firm in Myrtle Beach to bring suit, Gundling said. Attorneys believe they can challenge the project for failing to meet the public comment requirements and for failing to follow the terms of a federal grant that provided about $1 million that will be used for a system to link the four traffic signals in the project area and allow them to react to actual traffic conditions.

There are also pending condemnation actions for right-of-way acquisition that will be contested, Gundling said.

“We’re trying to get a redesign to avoid all that,” he said. “We’re hoping to work something out.”

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