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Highway 17: DOT puts new signs at top of list for median project

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Directional signs will go up ahead of schedule in portions of the new median on Highway 17 following complaints about drivers turning the wrong way in the designated turn lanes.

“Normally, we install permanent signs at the end of the project,” said Timothy Britt, assistant construction engineer for the state Department of Transportation in Georgetown County. “We are trying to get signs installed in areas where we already have concrete poured.”

The $3.75 million project is replacing the paved median on 1.8 miles of Highway 17 from Waverly Road to Baskervill Drive with a raised median. There are 16 breaks in the median for U-turns and left turns. Some drivers have found their way into the wrong end of some of those breaks. One driver said she just saw a gap in the median and drove through it. It was intended for cars turning left from the highway to Professional Lane. She was turning left from Professional Lane onto the highway. Like others who made similar maneuvers, she asked that her name not be used.

A North Carolina family who tried to get across Highway 17 from the Hammock Shops one night last week found themselves heading south in the northbound lane of traffic.

“It was terrifying,” said Wain White. He and his wife, Fiorella, live in Summerfield, N.C., and have visited DeBordieu and the Pawleys Island area for 20 years.

Mrs. White was driving with their children and a grandchild in the car. As she turned out of the northern driveway of the Hammock Shops around 10 p.m. she couldn’t see over the median. She thought she had reached the southbound lane and she turned left. “I’m driving for 40 years,” she said. “I’m not stupid.”

Northbound drivers flashed their lights and the Whites knew immediately what was wrong. Their children hugged each other, Mrs. White said, still shaken by the experience a week later.

She pulled into an opening created by a left-turn lane intended for cars turning into the south entrance of the Hammock Shops. “It was just instinct,” she said. She realized she was lucky no southbound cars were in the turning lane. She backed out and returned to the Hammock Shops. On their next try, the Whites went north to a median break at the Pawleys Island Post Office and made a U-turn.

Mrs. White spoke with Britt about the need for better signs. “We were livid,” she said. He was understanding, she said.

Mr. White offered to go to Walmart to buy some arrow signs. He said he understood why that wasn’t accepted.

“We’re just trying to save some lives,” Mr. White said.

Mark Hoeweler also got copies of photos of cars going the wrong way in the turn lanes. He is the senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, which allocates DOT funds for projects in the region. He agreed that the new traffic pattern is confusing. “It’s going to be until it’s finished,” he said. He also pointed out that before the project drivers frequently ignored a small median at the entrance to Fresh Market that was intended to stop left turns across Highway 17. “If they can do it they will,” Hoeweler said.

County Council Member Steve Goggans, a critic of the median project before he ran for council last year, agreed that part of the problem is that it’s a work in progress. “Half finished, the perception is it’s creating some real traffic hazards,” he said. “I would have thought there would be temporary signs. That’s unfortunate.”

Midway Fire and Rescue Chief Doug Eggiman said he wasn’t aware of any accidents caused by the median project, which began in March. He was working on compiling numbers for accidents Midway has responded to in the project area, but “anecdotally, I haven’t really heard of many, if any” caused by the median, he said. “Before the median construction happened, we were running accident calls up and down Highway 17.”

Britt said the project contractor is at work to get signs installed that say “Do Not Enter” and “No Left Turn.” The project also includes pavement markings and traffic signals at the post office and the Hotel Drive/Jetty Drive intersection. Those won’t be done until the entire project area is repaved.

Crews are still pouring concrete for the raised median. Curbing for the portions that will be landscaped is already in place. Britt said DOT and the contractor hope the work will finish ahead of schedule, but the contract calls for completion in November.

“Let’s get it finished and let’s evaluate it,” Goggans said he is telling constituents. “If you’re still outraged, we’ll talk about it.”

After their experience, the Whites are skeptical about the future of Highway 17 in the Pawleys Island area. “From our perspective, it’s going to be a mess,” Mr. White said. “It’s well-intentioned, but poorly executed.”

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