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Roads: Few accidents now, but sidewalk supporters fear for future

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

It’s been almost seven years since there was an accident involving a bicyclist on Martin Luther King Road, the only accident of its kind along the road in the last 12 years, according to records from the state Department of Public Safety. But supporters of a sidewalk or bike route for the area say it isn’t past injuries, but the prospect of future injuries that fuels their concern.

A review of data from Public Safety shows there were 45 collisions investigated by the Highway Patrol on Martin Luther King Road since 2005. Of those, 28 were collisions between motor vehicles. Another eight involved vehicles running into the ditch alongside the road, and five were collisions between vehicles and signs, mailboxes or utility poles. On Oct. 30, 2009, about an hour before sunset, a car hit a “pedalcycle” on the road between Highway 17 and Parkersville Road. One person was injured. The cause was listed as “improper crossing.”

“That’s surprising, because I thought there had been more than that going back in time,” County Council Member Steve Goggans said. He is a proponent of sidewalks and bike paths for the neighborhood where traffic has increased as more residents use back roads as an alternative to Highway 17 for local trips. “Safety is a concern we should be addressing pro-actively,” he said.

The state Department of Transportation and Georgetown County are preparing to pave the dirt portion of Petigru Drive between Litchfield Country Club and Martin Luther King Road to improve access to Stables Park. That project includes bike lanes. Residents in the Parkersville area want to see those extended along Martin Luther King.

The Bike the Neck citizens group that has created a network of bike paths from Murrells Inlet through Pawleys Island wants to have the bike lanes from Stables Park extended along Petigru Drive to Waverly Road. A sidewalk on Waverly that was installed by DOT in the 1980s connects with the Bike the Neck paths on Highway 17 and Kings River Road.

“On Petigru and Martin Luther King, there’s going to be an increase in traffic when they pave,” said Norman Reid, president of the Pawleys Island Civic Club. He and two area pastors voiced their support for Goggans’ pedestrian plans in a letter to the editor this week. Paving Petigru will give Litchfield Country Club residents a more direct route to Pawleys Island area businesses, Reid said. He’s already seen an increase in traffic since the Fresh Market and Publix grocery stores opened along Highway 17.

“It’s just a matter of time. Why do you have to wait until somebody gets hurt to fix these things,” Reid said.

It isn’t just vehicle traffic that will increase, said Linda Ketron, who heads Bike the Neck. The bike lanes on Petigru will lead cyclists from Litchfield to Martin Luther King Road and the back roads. “There’s been a huge increase on the paths we have,” she said.

“It’s a safety issue,” said Mark Hoeweler, senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study. The study’s policy committee, representing local governments, set priorities for DOT projects. “You don’t know how many people had been trying to walk on the road and had to dive out of the way,” he said.

Through July, the number of collisions on Martin Luther King this year is double what it was in 2015: four. (Statisticians at Public Safety caution that the data for both years is still subject to change.) The most collisions in any year was seven in 2005 and in 2013. There was only one collision in 2010.

Almost half the collisions took place at intersections: 10 at the junction with Waverly Road, six at Parkersville Road, four at Petigru Drive. Speeding was listed as the primary cause of just one accident, although “driving too fast for conditions” was the cause in 14 collisions. Drunken driving was the cause in eight.

“As traffic continues to shift, there’s going to be more and more conflict,” Goggans said. “We don’t have to witness an accident. These are amenities that growing towns and cities deserve.”

Tourism, home sales and business development will all benefit from sidewalks and bike paths, he said. The Swamp Rabbit Trail, which follows an abandoned rail line around Greenville, has become a magnet for growth. “It’s become a biking mecca,” Goggans said. “The power of these things as amenities is obvious as you move around the country.”

But he would go back to safety when it comes to setting priorities for bike paths and sidewalks. He has asked the County Transportation Committee, which allocates funds collected through the state gas tax to road projects, to consider buying right-of-way for sidewalks along Grate Avenue from Petigru Drive to the county recycling center. “There’s a ton of heavy truck traffic and you’ve got people walking and kids playing,” he said.

While that work would get local funding, Goggans believes more state and federal funds will become available for alternatives to roads. Hoeweler has already seen that in Horry County’s local road projects, funded through a local sales tax. But he said that much of that money is available only as part of a larger package that includes road projects. “We spend all our time chasing projects that should have been done earlier,” Hoeweler said.

The transportation study budget now has $307,000 to spend for bike paths and sidewalks in the area from Georgetown to the North Carolina line. “You’ve got all these jurisdictions competing for a very low level of funding,” Hoeweler said. “Our role is just to fill in the blanks.”

He would establish priorities based on where people already walk. “Old time planners say you go out and look where there are paths worn into the grass. People are making their own trails,” he said.

Reid already knows where people walk. Many are on Parkersville Road, especially kids walking to the county recreation center. He thinks bike lanes on Petigru will help, though. “We’ll settle for either one of them,” Reid said.

Of 47 collisions on Petigru Drive since 2005, only 12 occurred in the stretch between Martin Luther King and Waverly. There were 25 between Waverly and Highway 17. The other 10 were all at the Waverly Road intersection. Combined with collisions on Waverly itself, the intersection with Petigru was the scene of 29 collisions through July 2016.

No pedestrians or cyclists were involved in collisions on Petigru Drive, according to the Public Safety data.

“I’m surprised there haven’t been more fatalities,” Goggans said. He recalled two on Martin Luther King back in the 1980s when he worked for The Litchfield Co. in an office that was just off the road at the River Club. “Maybe there’s more awareness about safety now.”

Still, Goggans said, “I think we’re living on borrowed time.”

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