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Highway 17: Sandy Island light seen as step toward easing school traffic

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A traffic signal on Highway 17 at Sandy Island Road is the first step toward improving traffic around public facilities along Willbrook Boulevard, according to Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway. It’s also the least expensive of several options proposed in a study by an outside engineering firm.

The county pitched the idea of a roundabout at Willbrook Boulevard and Wildcat Way to the leaders of area property owners associations last year. Wildcat Way serves Waccamaw Intermediate and Waccamaw Middle schools, but only allows right-in, right-out access from Willbrook Boulevard. Parents who drive their children to school say the traffic pattern creates delays and forces them to go out of their way in order to reach Highway 17. Area residents say school traffic creates problems with illegal U-turns. And Midway Fire and Rescue says school traffic blocks its station on St. Paul Place.

A roundabout was seen as a way to improve access to the schools and keep traffic off St. Paul Place. But at a meeting in April to discuss traffic problems, some people questioned the cost (budgeted for $600,000, but estimated to be about $350,000) and whether it would solve the problem. The county hired the engineering firm of Davis & Floyd to examine traffic in the area and come up with some options. A draft of the traffic study submitted to the county in June recommended three options for further study:

• a traffic light on Highway 17 at Sandy Island Road;

• left turn access to Wildcat Way from Willbrook Boulevard;

• a road across Retreat Park connecting Wildcat Way with Highway 17 at the Boyle Drive intersection.

The consultants ruled out a couple of options, including a proposal raised by some area residents to eliminate the Wildcat Way intersection with Willbrook Boulevard. That would only increase problems at other intersections, the study noted.

The county has already taken its case for a traffic signal to the state Department of Transportation in Columbia, bypassing the district traffic engineer, Michael Bethea, who opposes a signal at Sandy Island Road. “The volumes are way below the threshold needed,” he said. “School traffic is only heavy for a brief period in the morning and afternoon.”

School Superintendent Randy Dozier said he supports the county’s approach. “It’s a safety issue,” he said. “It amazes me it’s still a problem. Every time I go down 17 there’s a new light.”

Two signals were added in the Pawleys Island area in the last year and two more will be installed as part of the median consolidation project.

John Hanick, a Willbrook resident who was an early critic of the roundabout, said he was pleased that the county is pushing for a signal at Sandy Island Road. He wrote Bethea early in the process about the need for a signal and was rebuffed. “It sounds like a pretty good plan,” he said of the county’s efforts.

The need for traffic signals is evaluated according to Federal Highway Administration standards that list eight reasons or “warrants” for signals. The Davis & Floyd study found the Sandy Island Road intersection met one of the warrants based on the peak traffic in a one hour period. It found the intersection was only 16 vehicles short of meeting a warrant based on four-hour traffic volume, and the study emphasized that it was using conservative traffic estimates.

By meeting the warrant peak traffic, the signal could be set to flash amber from the side streets during off-peak periods, according to the standards. That’s what Hemingway has in mind. “You could program that thing where it is a timed intersection during the school period. It would allow an adequate number of those people to get out,” he said. “Twenty-two out of 24 hours, it could be a green light on 17.”

Davis & Floyd took traffic counts over two days in April and May. School traffic is heaviest in the morning. It found that the busiest intersection off Highway 17 is Wildcat Way, where 324 vehicles made right turns off Willbrook Boulevard between 7 and 8 a.m. Leaving the schools, the largest number of vehicles (136) made left turns toward Highway 17 from St. Paul Place. School traffic can reach St. Paul by cutting through the Waccamaw Library parking lot or using the bus entrance to the intermediate school, which is illegal.

“If you look at all the school traffic, it’s like mice in a maze,” Hemingway said. “They’re going to find a route to get where they’re going.”

The study also measured congestion at the intersections, using a scale of A through F where E and F are considered failing. The average wait at St. Paul Place and Willbrook was 52 seconds in the morning; an F. At Sandy Island Road, the average morning wait was over 4 minutes. It improved to a minute and a half in the afternoon, defined as 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Both delays are level F.

The intersection of Willbrook Boulevard and Highway 17 was the only one where the delay got worse in the afternoon, increasing to over a minute from just over 34 seconds in the morning. In both the morning and afternoon, the majority of vehicles going through the intersection from Willbrook Boulevard turn north. A light at Sandy Island Road would take pressure off the Willbrook Boulevard intersection, Hemingway said.

The disadvantage of a signal at Sandy Island Road is that it won’t improve access to Willbrook Boulevard for school traffic, the Davis & Floyd study says. For that, it proposed a left turn lane for traffic eastbound on Willbrook and for traffic coming off Wildcat Way. The conceptual design would widen Willbrook to create dedicated lanes and reduce the impact on through traffic.

While a traffic signal would cost $125,000 and the intersection improvements $495,000 (both rough estimates, the study says), building a road across Retreat Park from Wildcat Way to Highway 17 would likely cost over $1 million. It would also have impact on wetlands, the park and the adjacent Waccamaw Middle School ballfields, and require rights-of-way. But it would improve access to the schools, reduce congestion on Willbrook Boulevard and utilize the existing traffic signal at Boyle Drive and Highway 17, the study notes.

In recommending the three options for further study, the Davis & Floyd report says they can be done individually or in combination.

Hemingway said his idea is to start with the Sandy Island Road traffic signal. “From a planning standpoint,” he said, “you’re better served to do that and observe what the new traffic patterns are.”

He would give it a year, then look at left-turn access at Willbrook Boulevard and Wildcat Way, he said. “Without Sandy Island [Road], you’re going to be pushing people to Willbrook to make that left turn,” Hemingway said. “That’s why we’re hopeful we could get that signal.”

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