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Highway 17: U-turn ban closes off route for school traffic

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The left turn lane from Highway 17 onto Willbrook Boulevard got longer. That didn’t help.

The left turn signal at the traffic light got longer. That didn’t help, either.

Rather than turn left, cars headed for the nearby Waccamaw Intermediate and Middle schools continued to turn right toward the gated entrance of Litchfield by the Sea, make a U-turn and wait for the green light to head west on Willbrook Boulevard. It was a strategy to beat the school traffic that backs up in the northbound lane of Highway 17 around 7:30 a.m. But it’s no longer an option after the Litchfield by the Sea Community Association placed the short stretch of the road under the jurisdiction of the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s a safety issue, mainly,” said Bill McElroy, the community association president. “But the pavement is taking a beating.” The streets east of Highway 17 are owned by the association and the businesses that have access from them are association members, he explained.

The left turn lane on Highway 17 and Willbrook Boulevard was extended last year in a $225,000 state Department of Transportation intersection improvement. “There was a lot of public comment that you’re taking out too much of the landscaping” in the median, said Mark Hoeweler, senior staff member of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, which prioritizes local projects for DOT.

Although the traffic model showed that a shorter extension would suffice, Hoeweler said it was made longer because planners were aware of the local conditions.

“We thought it would get better,” McElroy said. “I didn’t see a blip of improvement.”

Two weeks ago, the association asked DOT to extend the time of the left-turn signal. It went from 20 seconds to 40 seconds. “It didn’t seem to make a difference,” McElroy said.

It might take a little time for drivers to catch on to the extra time, said Michael Bethea, DOT’s district traffic engineer. He initially thought about limiting the 40 second option to school hours, but said there is enough traffic other times to warrant the longer signal. But he noted the 40-second option only kicks in if the sensor in the pavement detects waiting vehicles.

“Twenty seconds was not enough,” Bethea said. He will consider extending the time again if there is a need, but said he would like to see how 40 seconds works once the work gets around.

On Monday morning, a blue Honda with a child in the passenger’s seat made the U-turn under the moss-draped oaks at 7:20. There were no cars waiting in the highway’s left-turn lane. The next two light changes each saw one car that had made the U-turn head west on Willbrook. At 7:26, there were six cars. Then 13.

By 7:30 a.m., a dozen cars had made the U-turn and were waiting for the light to change so they could cross Highway 17. A food delivery truck leaving Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort merged into the line. Three kids on bikes came off the Bike the Neck path. On the next signal change, there were 14 cars that had made U-turns lined up along with cars leaving Litchfield by the Sea. The line blocked southbound vehicles that had turned off Highway 17 and a couple of other cars waited in the right-turn lane to get their chance to make the U-turn.

As quickly as it appeared, the traffic vanished. The last batch of westbound cars, 10 in all, went through at 7:38. The last of those was still short of the intersection when the light turned red. It ran the light.

In 18 minutes, 73 cars had turned right to go left on Willbrook Boulevard. That was in spite of a notice posted on the Facebook pages of Waccamaw Intermediate and Middle schools the previous Friday announcing the community association’s intent to halt U-turns. Parents received automated phone calls on Monday.

Tuesday morning, the number of U-turning vehicles dropped to 37, said Alan Walters, the director of safety for the Georgetown County School District. “We’re trying to be good neighbors,” he said.

Walters is a former deputy and magistrate in the county’s traffic court. The community association can post traffic signs as long as they don’t contradict state law, he said. It plans to install signs banning U-turns, McElroy said.

Tim Carnahan, principal at Waccamaw Intermediate, said he wasn’t aware of any concerns until last week. Parents have two concerns, he said: it takes more than one signal change to make a left turn on Highway 17 at Willbrook and there is no left-turn access to Willbrook at Wildcat Way, which serves the intermediate and middle schools.

Bus ridership is lowest in the morning. “We provide good bus service,” Carnahan said, but added “nobody wants to put their kid on a bus at 6:15.” Many parents also have children attending more than one of the four Waccamaw schools. They have asked the district to stagger school start times, but Carnahan said that’s hard to do because the schools share buses.

“Until we fix the problem, people will seek solutions,” he said.

Last year, deputies began ticketing cars leaving the intermediate school in the driveway marked “Buses Only” after Midway Fire and Rescue raised concerns that the cars were backing up in front of its station on St. Paul’s Place. It was a way to get to Highway 17 at Willbrook without heading west to the intersection at Reunion Drive. Property owners in the Tradition Club have objected to efforts to give the school left-turn access from Willbrook Boulevard, citing traffic and safety concerns. The neighborhood is among the 29 included in the Litchfield by the Sea Community Association.

Hoeweler said he wasn’t aware of problems with school traffic at the Willbrook intersection with Highway 17, although he has raised questions with DOT in the past about the timing of the traffic signals. He wasn’t sure how a U-turn ban at the Litchfield by the Sea entrance would impact traffic elsewhere in the intersection, but said he would talk with DOT engineers.

“People will be creative,” he said.

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