083117 Highway 17: Legislators turn light red for additional traffic signals
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Highway 17: Legislators turn light red for additional traffic signals

By Charles Swenson

Local officials want to put the brakes on new traffic signals on Highway 17, according to the chairman of the committee that approves regional transportation projects. It is unclear how that will impact traffic, because signals don’t usually come up for approval by the committee.

“There is a coastal movement, along with the county transportation committees, to disallow more stop lights on 17,” state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch said. He chairs the policy committee of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study. It approves projects in the region that receive federal funding based on recommendations for local governments in Georgetown and Horry counties. “You won’t see GSATS or CTCs approve new signals,” he said.

The county transportation committees approve road improvements and maintenance using a portion of the funds generated locally by the state gas tax. Those funds increased this year as the tax increased to fund statewide road improvements.

While there hasn’t been a formal decision by the policy committee, Goldfinch said it “seems to be the consensus of the members.” It is the result of increased volume of traffic on Highway 17.

Requests for traffic signals are assessed by the state Department of Transportation based on several criteria, including traffic volume and safety. “We don’t like to see additional traffic signals to impede traffic on Highway 17 either,” said Michael Bethea, DOT’s district traffic engineer. “If a traffic signal is the safest way, I would have to approve it. I wouldn’t have to approve it, but I would if I wanted to sleep at night.”

DOT and local officials get requests for traffic signals all the time. When DOT denies a request, sometimes one from local government, the applicants will seek support from state legislators to change the outcome. Goldfinch hopes local lawmakers will be able to resist those efforts if they stand together. And that suits Bethea. “The delegation does not need to be in the business of putting pressure” for signals, he said. “When you do it for one, you open a can of worms.”

Two new traffic signals on Highway 17 at Pawleys Island came with a 2015 project that replaced a two-way left-turn lane with a raised median. That was a GSATS project initiated by Georgetown County. The signals were the result of the design process, said Mark Hoeweler, the director of the transportation study. He also gets regular calls about new traffic signals, he said.

Howeler wasn’t aware of the policy committee’s feeling about new signals. The committee meets twice a year. “I could see where it would correct a philosophy to limit the number and not have a signal be the answer to every problem,” he said. But he added, “it’s not like DOT calls us up and asks us.”

DOT does look for options when it gets signal requests. “We look for connections to get traffic to existing signals. That’s what we would all like to see,” Bethea said.

Goldfinch cited the example of the Sandy Island Road/Trace Drive intersection. “They’ve been lobbying for a light there,” he said. Both Georgetown County officials and parents of students at the nearby schools have asked for a signal. DOT studied the intersection and determined that there isn’t enough traffic outside of school drop-off and dismissal times.

“It would have been nice to have one, even for limited hours,” said state Rep. Lee Hewitt, whose children attended the schools. He was also unaware of the policy committee’s stance on future signals. He is in his first term in the S.C. House and said “I have not been part of those discussions.” The calls he gets about traffic signals have to do with the timing, rather than the location, he added.

Hewitt is the former chairman of the county Planning Commission. He said that development can create the need for traffic signals. “You would always have to be open to change,” he said.

Goldfinch agreed. “As development changes, you can never say never,” he said. But he added, “I don’t think DOT has to approve a light if the CTC and delegation don’t want it.”

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