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Traffic: Giving up on traffic light, county explores new options for Willbrook

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A year after Georgetown County began looking at ways to improve traffic along Willbrook Boulevard, Midway Fire and Rescue has come up with its own alternative.

When traffic coming out of Waccamaw Intermediate and Waccamaw Middle schools starts backing up in front of the fire station on St. Paul Place, Midway will load up its trucks and move to Litchfield Market Village.

“That gets us out of the station when it’s not an emergency,” Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said. “We’ll see how that works.”

So far Midway hasn’t made the move. Eggiman said the extent of the traffic backups that occur in the morning and afternoon are hard to predict. “I can’t say there’s any rhyme or reason to it,” he said.

Traffic coming from the schools uses St. Paul Place to get to Highway 17 by way of Willbrook Boulevard.

Georgetown County hoped to get a traffic signal on Highway 17 at Sandy Island Road as a way to improve traffic around the schools. The state Department of Transportation has said there isn’t enough traffic on Sandy Island Road outside peak times to warrant a signal.

Mike Wooten, the DOT commission member for the 7th Congressional District, said the signal is needed to keep traffic from backing up in front of the Midway Fire and Rescue station in Willbrook. “If a call came in at peak hours, the fire department literally couldn’t get out of their own driveway,” he said.

The county had proposed a roundabout on Willbrook Boulevard at Wildcat Way to help relieve school traffic. That plan was put on hold after the county hired an engineering firm to study traffic in the area. The firm listed the traffic signal at Sandy Island Road as the least expensive of three options it thought were worth further study. That was in June.

“I’ve been reminded more than once that there was supposed to be a follow-up meeting,” County Council Member John Thomas said. A community forum was held in April before the consultants’ report was complete. But he said the only complaints have been about school traffic blocking the fire station.

“The last I heard, the Columbia office did a review during school times. The recommendation was it still didn’t need a signal,” said Michael Bethea, district traffic engineer for the state Department of Transportation. He had already denied the request for a signal.

“The signal at Willbrook serves the schools adequately,” Bethea said. DOT also looked at delays during the school rush. “The traffic wasn’t as bad as they thought,” he said.

But Eggiman said that Wooten’s assessment is correct, at least on occasion. “When it becomes a problem is when it’s backed up beyond the station,” he said.

Cars can enter St. Paul Place from the intermediate school bus lane north of the fire station and from the Waccamaw Library to the south. The library is closer to the Willbrook intersection so those cars don’t wind up in front of the station, but Eggiman said they make it hard for fire and rescue vehicles to get onto Willbrook.

Midway plans to pull its equipment out of the station to avoid panicking drivers with lights and sirens.

“That’s the smartest and safest and most pro-active move,” Eggiman said. Unless called to an emergency, the trucks will wait in the shopping center for about 20 minutes.

“I wouldn’t want to do that every day,” Eggiman said. “We’ll see how it goes the first time.”

With a signal at Sandy Island Road no longer an option, the county will look to alternatives: improving the Wildcat Way intersection to create left-turn access to Willbrook Boulevard and building a road across Retreat Park that would connect with Highway 17 at the Boyle Drive traffic light.

The left-turn access would help, but traffic headed to Highway 17 will still end up at the Willbrook traffic light, County Administrator Sel Hemingway noted. “It’s still going to direct traffic to an already crowded intersection,” he said.

As a long-term solution, he favors the connection with Boyle Drive, “if, economically, it could be justified,” he added.

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