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Transportation: Planning group at crossroads of growing public interest
By Charles Swenson
All roads lead to GSATS. Almost.
“We’re not looking at neighborhood streets and potholes,” said Mark Hoeweler, director of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study. What they are looking at is ways to improve traffic flow and highway safety through a region that stretches from Georgetown to Brunswick County, N.C.
The creation of a transportation plan that extends to 2040 has drawn attention from Waccamaw Neck residents concerned about the growing traffic. About a dozen people showed up for a recent meeting of the GSATS policy committee. Over 100 attended a forum in Murrells Inlet last month to review the 2040 plan. It was the biggest turnout of four meetings held around the region.
“I’m excited that they’re getting involved,” said state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, who chairs the policy committee. He suggested there may be some correlation between the public interest and the volume of summer traffic.
“I’m determined to do something about traffic,” said Marla Hamby, a Pawleys Island area resident who helped organize a forum on the issue this summer through the Republican women’s club. That led her to attend a GSATS policy committee meeting for the first time. “They don’t do much,” she said afterward.
The 24-member committee represents 18 government entities. It is responsible for approving federal and state funds for highway projects in the region, and for adopting the priority list of projects over the next 20 years. “Unfortunately, it takes a long time to build a road in South Carolina,” Goldfinch said.
Before a road can be built, it has to be on the list. That’s the way it has been since GSATS was created in 1992. In the alphabet soup of government agencies, it is an MPO charged with creating an MTP and a TIP. When the region’s population crossed the 50,000 threshold in the 1990 census the federal highway law required that spending be managed by a metropolitan planning organization. The core population has always been in Horry County, but it has grown to include the Waccamaw Neck.
Funding for the three-year cycle of transportation improvement programs is also based on population. The annual GSATS budget has grown from $1.9 million to $7.6 million, Hoeweler said. He was hired in 1992 to provide staff.
GSATS funds come from the federal gas tax that is returned to the state and then allocated by the Department of Transportation, which has to provide a 20 percent match to the federal funds. Over 25 years, Hoeweler has seen the state’s funding formula shift from favoring rural areas over urban ones.
The process has also received a boost from the adoption by Horry County voters of a 1-cent sales tax for road projects. The Riding on a Penny campaign was first approved in 2006 and was extended twice. Ride III will raise nearly $600 million over eight years.
The Ride program includes funds to bridge the Waccamaw River in southern Horry County, connecting Highway 17 on the east side with Highway 701 on the west. It is seen as a way for through traffic to bypass Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck. But even if all the sales tax was allocated to that project, it wouldn’t be enough to complete the work, Hoeweler said. And the route, known as the Southern Evacuation Lifeline, is one of 43 new roads included in the 2040 metropolitan transportation plan. The plan also includes road widening projects and intersection improvements.
“We’ve got more good ideas than we’ve got money,” Hoeweler said. “With our budget, there are only so many things we are able to respond to.”
Yet if new projects seem to move at the pace of traffic on a July Fourth weekend, Hoeweler sees progress. When he was hired, a year after completing a master’s degree in city and regional planning at Ohio State, he figured the region was 20 to 25 years behind in transportation infrastructure. Even as the GSATS boundaries grew to cover about 1,200 square miles with a population nearing 300,000 people, the gap has narrowed. “Ride changed that,” he said.
Hoeweler’s role as the GSATS director is to keep the process moving and build consensus. Along with the policy committee of local officials, there is a technical committee of staff from the various jurisdictions that review projects for the short- and long-term plans. While state law sets the criteria for establishing priorities, the local planning organizations have some leeway. “We added livability,” Hoeweler said. “It’s an anti-sprawl kind of approach.”
Hoeweler, who lives in the Tradition Club, sees the increased local interest in GSATS as a confirmation of his decision to specialize in transportation planning. “It seems to be an issue that touches a lot of people,” he said. And technology has improved the ability of people to connect to the process, he added. Mapping software allows them to see the 2040 projects online and make comments.
It really comes down to money. “That 2040 plan has to be fiscally constrained,” Hoeweler said.
One source of additional funds could come with the 2020 census. Pawleys Island and Litchfield are part of the GSATS area, but residents aren’t counted toward its funding. That’s because Brookgreen Gardens separates the census tracts. “It’s not contiguous” with the metropolitan area to the north, Hoeweler said.
Closing that gap of a tenth of a mile would add nearly $850,000 a year to the GSATS budget. That can happen if Georgetown County asks the Census Bureau to change the tracts. “It’s doable,” Hoeweler said.
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