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Traffic: County comes full circle on roundabout

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

While consultants continue to count cars in the area around Waccamaw Middle and Waccamaw Intermediate schools, parents are counting signatures on an online petition to urge Georgetown County to make traffic improvements.

County officials said last week that they no longer believe a roundabout at the intersection of Willbrook Boulevard and Wildcat Way will resolve traffic problems on its own.

“A lot of folks, and I’m as guilty as anyone, concluded the roundabout was the solution,” County Administrator Sel Hemingway told an audience of about 90 people at a meeting about the project last week. Instead, the county asked its consultants from the engineering firm of Davis & Floyd to get additional information. That will take another four to six weeks.

“It will take a number of different elements to reach a solution,” Hemingway said.

The schools are served by Wildcat Way, which connects with Willbrook Boulevard at a right-in, right-out intersection. Cars that want to reach Highway 17 have to go west on Wildcat to Reunion Drive in order to go east on Willbrook to the highway. As a result, drivers looking for a shorter route cut through the intermediate school bus lane and the Waccamaw Library parking lot to reach St. Paul Place, where they block the Midway Fire and Rescue station as they wait to make a left turn onto Willbrook.

The roundabout at Willbrook and Wildcat was proposed to give school traffic better access and reduce congestion in front of the fire station.

Property owners in the area, particularly at the Tradition Club, complain about parents making illegal U-turns in their entrance and elsewhere along Willbrook Boulevard. Parents complain about long waits to get on Willbrook Boulevard at Reunion Drive.

“We want to make sure we understand the problem,” said Tilley Bull, a transportation engineer with Davis and Floyd. “We’re now expanding the study.”

One problem is the conflicting interests of road users. Some parents scoffed when a resident complained about people “held prisoner in their homes” by school traffic. Residents nodded in agreement when one described the bulk of the school traffic as “one mother and one child in an SUV.”

Hemingway waded into the audience at the Waccamaw Library, which overlooks the intersection, after an exchange between one resident and Tim Carnahan, principal of Waccamaw Intermediate. There are four communities in Willbrook Plantation affected by the traffic, the woman began. Carnahan interrupted. “There is one community,” he said. “It’s called Pawleys Island.”

“We’re not here to debate,” Hemingway said.

School Superintendent Randy Dozier said the district has looked at different traffic options since the intermediate school opened in 2008. “It’s going to take more than one solution,” he said. “We’re here to do our part. I’m not sure what our part will be.”

George Mitchell, a Tradition resident, said he was pleased to hear Hemingway describe the county’s efforts as “preliminary.” He has doubts about the roundabout and suggested the county close the access from Wildcat Way to Willbrook, sending school all the school traffic to Reunion Drive. “The whole area is a bottleneck,” Mitchell said, with the fire station and library both having access on St. Paul Place and with the Mingo commercial and residential development on the opposite side of Willbrook Boulevard.

He liked the idea of creating a road from Wildcat Way to Highway 17 connecting at the Boyle Drive intersection to North Litchfield, which already has a traffic signal. So did John Hanick, a Willbrook resident who was an early critic of the roundabout. He has also counted cars in the area during school drop-off and pick-up times. “I’m not convinced there’s a problem,” he said, except with the Midway fire station.

“We don’t want to cause you all a problem and we don’t want to sit in traffic, Margaret Tucker, president of the parent-teacher organization at Waccamaw Intermediate, said.

The group posted a petition at change.org asking the county to improve traffic flow at the Wildcat/Willbrook intersection with “safe and efficient” access to both roads. Parents who signed it said the intersection at Reunion and Willbrook is congested and making a left turn across Highway 17 at Sandy Island Road is dangerous.

Turning left onto Willbrook at Reunion Drive “is a game of chicken,” Kathi Grace, a PTO board member said.

She said it was the possibility of closing the Willbrook/Wildcat intersection that prompted the group to launch the petition drive as a way to raise awareness among parents. While parents favor a roundabout, she thought some of the other options have merit.

Although the Sandy Island Road intersection was expanded and realigned with Trace Drive on the east side of Highway 17, Carnahan noted there has been one fatal accident there during the school rush. “The death toll is one, and we don’t want to see it get to two,” he said.

Dozier believes a traffic signal is needed at Sandy Island Road and Highway 17. Doug Waikart, a resident at Reunion Hall, agrees. Reunion Drive runs between Willbrook Boulevard and Sandy Island Road and is the neighborhood’s only access. “The problem is, you’ve got a lot of cars all at once twice a day,” he said.

Waikart was also encouraged to learn the county’s plans are preliminary. He thinks additional access from the area to Highway 17 will improve traffic whether or not a roundabout is built.

The real problem is growth, Waikart believes. “You’re cramming more and more into a space the roads were not designed for,” he said.

Five options for improving traffic flow

1 Create a connection between Wildcat Way and Highway 17 at Boyle Drive.

It’s about 1,400 feet from the parking lot at the Retreat Park ballfields to Highway 17 at Boyle Drive, where there is a traffic signal.

“That would be an elegant solution, but probably not cost effective,” Council Member John Thomas said. Critics of the roundabout cited cost as one of their objections, he said.

The property is owned by Brookgreen Gardens. School Superintendent Randy Dozier said the district has considered a route around the park in the past. Although both the school and the park property were acquired from Brookgreen through a “friendly condemnation,” the nonprofit has traditionally been wary about giving away property.

2 Install at traffic signal at Highway 17 and Sandy Island Road.

The state Department of Transportation completed a realignment of Sandy Island Road with Trace Drive at North Litchfield in 2012. Under DOT standards, it’s too close to Boyle Drive to get a signal, but those standards were waived for a signal last year at the Lowes Foods store near the existing signal at the South Causeway.

“A signal at Sandy Island Road is needed,” Dozier said.

If the engineering firm that is studying the traffic issues recommends a sign, County Administrator Sel Hemingway said the county will try to work out an agreement with DOT.

3 Have school resource officers or crossing guards direct traffic.

One concern of parents is that the traffic now routed to Willbrook Boulevard at Reunion Drive backs up because it is hard to make a left turn. Jennifer Burger suggested “an actual, real person that could stand there and be our safe left turn.”

The district has resource officers direct traffic at other schools and pay for crossing guards at schools in the city of Georgetown, Dozier said.

As for Waccamaw Intermediate and Waccamaw Middle schools, “If I knew where to put a crossing guard I would,” he said.

4 Create a new access to Highway 17 for Midway Fire and Rescue.

There is a power line that runs from St. Paul Place to Highway 17 between St. Paul’s Waccamaw United Methodist Church and Litchfield Exchange. Midway Fire and Rescue has a right of way under the power line, Dozier said.

5 Improve enforcement of the traffic laws.

School buses from Waccamaw Intermediate have access to St. Paul Place. Cars that use that driveway in spite of a sign that says “Buses Only” block the Midway Fire and Rescue station and its access to Willbrook Boulevard.

A crackdown by deputies in 2013 that led to complaints that prompted former County Council Member Bob Anderson to start looking for solutions to the traffic problems last year.

Hemingway said he received a video from Midway that shows traffic stacking up in front of its station. It runs for 20 minutes, he said.

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