As Memorial Day approaches, a federal judge needs additional time before ruling whether Myrtle Beach can continue with its 23-mile traffic loop for the holiday weekend.
After a four-hour hearing, Judge Marvin Quattlebaum told NAACP and Myrtle Beach attorneys that he couldn’t provide a timetable for his decision.
“We know this event is coming up,” he said.
Myrtle Beach and NAACP leaders presented their cases in federal court in Greenville on Tuesday regarding the loop. The NAACP seeks an injunction to ban the traffic loop during Atlantic Beach Bike Week, commonly referred to as “Black Bike Week.”
The NAACP filed a lawsuit against Myrtle Beach and its police department in February over the loop. The city contends the detour is needed for public safety and to allow emergency responders navigate traffic. The 23-mile loop started in 2015 after the 2014 weekend was marred with violence and shootings.
NAACP leaders called the loop discriminatory and said it takes away from visitors’ enjoyment.
NAACP’s attorney Reed Colfax called the traffic loop “a plan that is unjustified, unfair and unconstitutional.”
There are two parts of the loop’s plan, Colfax said. One is the 23-mile stretch that funnels traffic from Ocean Boulevard out to the county and then returns. The other turns Ocean Boulevard into a one-way stretch.
The one-way travel is in place all weekend and the loop is used from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Colfax said traffic in the loop moves slowly and some drivers said it took hours to complete the stretch. As a result, the loop goes fails in its mission to ease congestion, he said.
The NAACP contends the loop goes against equal protection laws. They argue that statements made by Myrtle Beach officials show that race played a part in creating the loop. They provided quotes from former city officials about wanting to move bike week traffic and people away from the area.
The loop is also not used during Harley Week, which the NAACP contends is a similar sized event and similar crowd.
“This traffic plan is unique in Myrtle Beach,” Colfax said, “nothing else appears like it any other time of the year.”
Two witnesses testified for the NAACP. Willie Williams is a police chief in North Carolina and attended several Harley and Memorial Day weekends in Myrtle Beach. He said crowd behaviors are relatively the same during both Harley and Memorial Day weeks.
“I have not seen anything that is so criminal in nature that will warrant the need for a pattern we see today,” he said.
David Clarke is a civil engineer who studied the loop in 2017 and in its initial creation before it was disbanded for a few years.
The NAACP previously sued the city over the first version of the loop. In 2005, a judge granted an injunction, but it was stayed by an appeals court. The city and NAACP later agreed to stop the loop. That agreement lasted for a few years, before being reinstated in its current form.
Clarke said he saw little evidence that a one-way stretch along Ocean Boulevard helped traffic, which would receive the lowest flow evaluation grade.
“This would be a F minus, minus,” Clarke said.
Colfax also said the loop hasn’t helped in safety concerns. Data showed only a slight change in emergency response times and violence figures from before the loop until today.
Myrtle Beach’s attorney Michael Battle said the city disagrees with many of the statements and information put forth by the NAACP.
“For us it’s a major public safety event,” Battle said.
The NAACP wants to return to the 2014 plan that was described by several government agencies as a “failure,” Battle said.
Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock and Cpt. Joey Crosby testified during the hearing. Crosby explained how the loop works and said there are exits to the detour.
Myrtle Beach officials said Harley Week bikers stay in Myrtle Beach hotels, but attend events outside the city limits before returning. Crosby said during Memorial Day weekend there is a constant stream of people along Ocean Boulevard.
“There is very little break in this,” Crosby said.
Prock has seen different versions of the loop and said the current model is the most effective.
“We wanted to be able to provide the upmost public safety to everyone,” she said.
The city has spent more than $300,000 preparing and purchasing equipment for the 2018 week, Prock said. That figure will climb above $600,000 before the rally, she said.
City officials also said Harley Week is also different as some riders boycotted Myrtle Beach starting in 2009 after the city passed a handful of ordinances. Those laws didn’t have the same impact for Memorial Day riders.
Battle said the potential harm in the case is not from allowing the loop, but barring it only a few weeks from the holiday.
“The harm would be a mismanaged public safety event,” Battle said.
Each side also faced questions from the judge. Quattlebaum asked Colfax why the NAACP didn’t file the suit before 2018. Colfax said they were trying to find a solution with local leaders before bringing legal action.
Both sides were also asked about the NAACP posting bond if the injunction is granted. Essentially, the NAACP would have to help cover some of the costs the city has already expended. Colfax, while not committing 100 percent, said the NAACP would be willing to post bond up to an unspecified amount.