As U.S. 17 Bypass bridge takes shape in Myrtle Beach, motorists adjust to medians, traffic patterns

The bridge at U.S. 17 Bypass and S.C. 707, also known as the back gate, is taking shape and giving motorists a taste of what’s to come once traffic is allowed on the bridge at the end of summer.

In the last months, medians have been installed on Farrow Parkway and S.C. 707 where each road meets U.S. 17. Most noticeable has been the boot-cut median on S.C. 707 that starts as a thin median, with five traffic lanes, and widens as it heads west on S.C. 707, often backing traffic up to a stoplight on Coalition Drive, which has only two traffic lanes.

“Work is ongoing out there,” said Mike Barbee, district engineer with S.C. Department of Transportation. “It’s really starting to look like a major bridge project now.”

The project, known locally as the back gate construction because of its proximity to the old back gate of the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, was sold to taxpayers as a $49.5 million project and is part of a larger one-cent sales tax program approved by voters in 2006 that raised $425 million. The project is now slated to cost $121.7 million with $15 million of it funded by the federal government.

Barbee said the contractor has pretty much finished paving and is nearly complete on the southbound lanes and the contractor is working at getting the northbound lanes to the same status. Though traffic will start traveling on the bridge in late summer, it will take a couple more months to add signs, lights and permanent striping on the road.

“November is still our completion date. We’ve not been disrupted from that date,” Barbee said. The project was originally slated to be complete in August, but bad weather last winter pushed the date back to November. “The goal is to get the traffic shifted onto the road at some point in September.”

Barbee said the boot-cut median may be new to drivers, but SCDOT believes it will provide a safer intersection.

“It is a different traffic pattern and it will prove to be safer and allow for more movement in the area, because you’re going to have traffic backed up trying to make a left into CVS” which is on the southwest corner of the intersection, Barbee said. “Those kind of channelizations and traffic control measures are being done for the overall improvement of traffic flow in conjunction with the interchange.”

As for traffic flow heading southbound on the new bridge, residents who live near Palmetto Pointe Boulevard have said for years they fear traffic will bottleneck at the traffic light there and back up on the bridge. With the flow of southbound U.S. 17 Bypass traffic expected to maintain at between 45- and 55-miles-per-hour, some are concerned that without a traffic signal warning sign at the peak of the bridge, complete with flashing yellow lights, there may be accidents with standing vehicles waiting for the Palmetto Pointe traffic light to turn green.

“That’s something we have discussed,” Barbee said. “That’s something we plan on taking a look at after the project is done to see if that would provide a particular benefit.”

He said signage is sometimes done near the end of a project or after a project is complete to adjust to how motorists navigate the new road.

“Those are things that we examine on an individual basis,” Barbee said. “We’ve done it in the past when there’s been a compelling reason to do it. Those are things that we entertain on a case-by-case basis.”

What is also done near the end of construction is beautification of the area. The city of Myrtle Beach has been tapped to make the area a little more eye appealing.

Mark Kruea, spokesman for Myrtle Beach, said the city is anticipating doing the work in the winter this year or at the first of the year.

“That interchange will meet the level of landscaping that we have elsewhere in the city,” Kruea said. “It’s a focal point. That’s a massive chunk of concrete and we want to soften that appearance as much as possible. It will be as well landscaped as the rest of Myrtle Beach is.”

Kruea said the city has been getting positive feedback about the intersection compared to how it worked before construction.

“It will be a vast improvement once you don’t have to stop at all on U.S. 17” at that interchange, Kruea said. “It’s better already even in construction phase than it was before, and I think people are really looking forward to its completion.”

Barbee said SCDOT will continue to monitor progress daily and come up with possible solutions to make sure the intersection is safe for all motorists when it is complete.

“We keep definitely a close watch on it,” Barbee said. “During construction, we have our personnel on the ground every single day. Every minute that the contractor is working, we have a team of folks out there surveying the work, going over it and making sure it’s being done correctly. It’s also monitored with our traffic cameras.”

“We have designed these improvements for the benefit of the majority of people. So once we put them in, we certainly expect and anticipate that those benefits will be realized.”