Many Pawleys Islands residents are not happy about a proposed S.C. Department of Transportation plan to place medians along Ocean Highway, and one local group is taking action against it.
Citizens Coalition for Ocean Highway (CCOH), which boasts the slogan “Don’t Strip the Neck,” aims to simplify the design of the DOT plan as it works to keep Pawleys Island a cozy, quiet town.
CCOH agrees that some changes must be made to traffic in Pawleys Island, but says the DOT’s plan for grass medians with U-turn lanes are not appropriate. Instead, the group wants island barriers of varying lengths to stretch across the highway, which they say would leave open spaces for cars to turn left, and remove the need for U-turn lanes.
CCOH announced during a press conference Monday that the group has commissioned a study of the traffic in Pawleys Island and has developed an alternative median plan.
Steve Goggans, chairman of CCOH, said during the press conference that residents have complained about the medians’ impact on the community aesthetics, safety and economy.
“Many of these people are very concerned because, first of all, the way it’s going to change the look and feel of Pawleys Island is concerning,” Goggans said.
Much of U.S. 17 in Pawleys Island is five lanes across, including the fifth in the middle, from which drivers can make left turns at any point. Locals refer to the fifth lane as “suicide lane.”
DOT’s proposed plan would limit the area where drivers can turn left and instead create U-turn lanes to prevent traffic congestion along the road.
“It has been described as a super highway,” Goggans said. “We’re concerned about the safety of the plan, especially in a community with older drivers.”
Specifically, the current DOT plan includes installing a median with a 6-inch curb to prevent vehicles from driving over the barrier that would extend from Waverly Road to just north of Baskerville Drive. Most of the median would be grass, with the only exception being at the south end of the project area, where the median narrows, said Jackie Broach, Georgetown County public information officer.
The project is expected to cost about $3.5 million.
In addition to a grassy barrier, the project will provide two protected pedestrian crossings at new traffic signals, which can serve as a refuge area for people crossing U.S. 17. The purpose of the plan, according to DOT, is to “improve access management and traffic congestion along this section of U.S. 17 in a manner that preserves safety, efficiency and the aesthetic character of the corridor.”
Though shrubbery and landscaping aren’t detailed in the blueprints, there will be room for greenery if any private group is willing to beautify the barriers, Broach said.
Bob Anderson, Georgetown County councilman, said the medians are a much-needed safety addition to Pawleys Island.
“We have a major safety issue there, and we have 37,000 vehicles going through that road during peak season,” Anderson said. “We need to do something; we should have done something 10 years ago.”
The Citizens Coalition officials, however, don’t believe DOT’s plans are right for the small community of Pawleys Island and have hired Eric Tripi, a transportation engineer, to analyze the targeted 1.9-mile section. The citizens group worked with Tripi to develop a median plan with the aim of striking a balance between access to local businesses and traffic mobility.
In order to analyze how to best plan around Pawleys traffic, Tripi partnered with Iteris Inc., a traffic study firm, to look at crash data from 2008 to 2010 in the stretch between Waverly Road and Baskerville Drive.
“We can tell how poorly or well a road is operating by how many crashes occur in the corridor,” Tripi said.
According to the DOT’s numbers, 95 accidents occurred in those three years. Tripi found 75 incidents. About 25 percent occurred at the Waverly intersection, and Tripi said 7 or 8 of those could have been prevented by a median.
From 2008 through 2011, Iteris found 94 crashes along the corridor while the DOT reported 203 collisions from 2007-2011.
“This means there would have had to have been 109 crashes in 2007 for the data cited [but DOT] to be accurate,” the Iteris report states.
Instead of looking at crash data, Tripi said DOT seemed to use “summary” data in its planning for the new medians, which led to the higher number of reported accidents.
“That overstatement of crashes may have had an influence on the ultimate development and design of the median concept plans,” Tripi said.
Overall, about 25 percent of all accidents occurred at a signaled intersection, not the open median, which leaves some questions about DOT’s proposed addition of two more traffic lights.
“Adding more signals into the corridor may add additional crashes,” Tripi said. “We don’t know for sure, though.”
The Citizens Coalition plan suggests aesthetically pleasing medians of varying length along U.S. 17 with open spaces for left turns. There are no plans yet for additional traffic signals, and the plan could roll out in two phases: building the islands first, then organizing and delineating driveways to allow for better traffic flow.
Goggans said the group attempted to open a dialogue with Georgetown County Council about changes to the plan, but was told the “ship had already sailed” after several months of meetings.
“It’s clear the DOT came to meetings with a pre-conceived design which was in the interest of conducting more traffic through Pawleys Island,” Goggans said, “not in the interest of the community.”
Goggans said he filed almost 30 Freedom of Information Acts to obtain the data used by DOT in their study.
Anderson said the dialogue was open, but the group failed to meet the project’s deadline in time for any changes.
“I had numerous meetings over the months, after the public input sessions, and I was contacted several months after the deadline,” Anderson said. Almost two years after the project was initiated, Anderson said it’s too late for a redo.
“I have no interest in looking back. I just want to move forward, now.”
The Citizens Coalition said their plan will be cheaper than the current project, since less materials are necessary and no more traffic lights will be added. Relieving some residents’ concerns about the aesthetics of the median, Goggans said landscaping options will be available.
Though discussions between County Council and Don’t Strip the Neck are rough, Goggans said he hopes for dialogue with area officials for improvement in Pawleys Island. He said the group expects to attend the council’s Dec. 10 meeting.
“We just hope council will re-engage and looks critically at resident’s complaints and our new plan.”
CCOH was formed in February and represents more than 2,000 citizens and 150 businesses in the Waccamaw Neck.
Contact CLAIRE BYUN at 626-0377 and follow her on Twitter @NeckNews.