Traffic mess on agenda

The beach at the Isle of Palms was bursting with visitors on Memorial Day Weekend Sunday May 26, 2013 creating long lines of traffic on Palm Boulevard.(Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

Grace Beahm

Record crowds at Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island created the worst Memorial Day weekend gridlock in recent memory.

But help could be on the way as the Charleston County Council Finance Committee will consider a proposal Thursday that would speed up $3 million in funding for Isle of Palms connector improvements.

Factors that led to the big crowds include balmy beach weather after a chilly spring, the long holiday weekend and the launch of the Spoleto Festival, said IOP City Administrator Linda Tucker.

“A lot of things came together that made for the perfect storm,” Tucker said.

Some drivers reported waits of up to three hours Sunday while trying to leave Sullivan’s.

“I’ve never in my life seen traffic like that. Nothing was moving. I mean nothing. It was unbelievable,” said Mat Surles of Mount Pleasant.

The situation prompted renewed calls for four-laning the Mount Pleasant stretch of the IOP connector, the project that County Council will consider.

IOP Police Chief Thomas Buckhannon likened the holiday traffic to tens of thousands of people streaming from a stadium after a football game.

This is his 33rd summer on the island, and “It’s the worst traffic I have ever seen,” Buckhannon said.

Sullivan’s Police Chief Danny Howard said vehicles were backed up all the way to IOP and Fort Moultrie.

“That was the biggest crowd I have ever seen on any weekend,” he said.

IOP Mayor Dick Cronin said traffic stretched for miles from the intersection of the IOP connector and Rifle Range Road in Mount Pleasant all the way across the bridge.

“We had more people on the island than we probably ever had,” he said. IOP keeps daily vehicle counts, but they weren’t yet available. Last year the daily car count for the holiday weekend was 20,000 vehicles.

Folly Beach reported no major traffic problems. Usually, traffic moves pretty well on Folly, said Mayor Tim Goodwin.

“We had big crowds all weekend,” Goodwin said.

The county park there, a major draw, remains closed because of erosion damage. Last summer, Folly banned alcohol on the beach, a rule already in effect on IOP and Sullivan’s.

At its Finance Committee meeting Thursday, County Council will consider a staff proposal for a quicker way to finance IOP connector widening.

The project as designed would four-lane the connector in Mount Pleasant from U.S. 17 to just past Riviera Drive. It would also make changes to improve traffic flow at the connector intersection with Rifle Range Road.

The connector upgrade is part of a package of four projects for which county staff has recommended a different, quicker method of financing. The others are a $2 million Ashley River Bridge retrofit and $7 million in improvements to the intersection of S.C. Highway 61 and S.C. 7. Some $3.7 million for the James Island connector/Calhoun Street at Courtenay Drive also is part of the package.

“Staff is requesting approval to expend bond funds now and reimburse these bond funds with allocation funding as it becomes available over the next several fiscal years,” states a document provided as part of the agenda package for the committee meeting.

County spokesman Shawn Smetana explained the new financing.

“Basically, staff is recommending the county borrow from one funding pot now to speed up the process of construction and pay it back using the allocation funds over the next several years,” he said in an email.

A timetable for the IOP connector project is not yet available, he said.

Connector improvements can’t come soon enough for Surles. Late Sunday afternoon, he was stuck for more than two hours on Sullivan’s, where traffic was backed up 15 to 20 blocks. In frustration, some drivers set up beach chairs on the road side. Others knocked on doors to use a bathroom or get some water, he said.

Surles tried back streets, but to no avail. He, his wife Leah and their two teenagers were trapped in their Chevy Tahoe in a situation that reminded him of his 18-hour evacuation from Charleston during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

IOP Police said the traffic woes were made worse by minor accidents on the connector that further clogged streets.

“The roads can only accommodate so much traffic,” Buckhannon said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.