By Meghan Daniel for The Island Eye News
Although the first day of spring was just over a month ago, early spells of warm weather along the coast have already begun to lure seasonal visitors onto the beaches of Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms. The only catch: they have to cross the bridges first.
Anyone who traveled across the IOP Connector or Ben Sawyer Bridge during the week of April 4-10 experienced firsthand the stark awakening that summer beach traffic is back with a vengeance. After a relatively quiet beach season last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sullivan’s Island Town Administrator Andy Benke commented that although the traffic during the second week of April was “very consistent with previous years where an increase in visitors and day trippers traveled to the littoral municipalities,” it “may have been somewhat busier given the previous restrictions and precautions in response to the COVID pandemic.”
“Residents are anxious to get outside and enjoy the warm weather and open spaces,” Benke added.
This sentiment was amplified by IOP City Administrator Desiree Fragoso, who remarked that the city expects “higher than usual activity this summer due to pent up demand,” particularly after what she called a “historically” high week for traffic and visitation to the island April 4-10.
Adding to the buzz of an increasing number of vehicles traveling to and from the island are a number of infrastructure related factors. Benke called the Ben Sawyer Intracoastal Waterway Main Connection Project, which has been underway since January, “somewhat of a factor with regard to ingress and egress given the lane and speed limit reduction.”
Fragoso speculated that “The water main project along Ben Sawyer may have increased traffic on the IOP Connector due to people choosing the Connector to avoid the other bridge.”
As for standard preparation for seasonal traffic increases on the islands, Benke and Fragoso reported that both municipalities hire additional law enforcement officers to oversee traffic enforcement as well as parking and beach regulations respective to each island. Fragoso also noted that, in addition to adding more law enforcement into the mix, the island’s fire department also brings in “extra personnel to adequately respond to the increase in calls for service.”
The summer preparation protocol on Sullivan’s also consists of reviewing emergency response plans in coordination with IOP and Mount Pleasant police and fire departments and coordinating traffic considerations with the Town of Mount Pleasant, Benke explained. On both islands, police departments often use traffic cones within busy intersections during designated high-traffic times to “control the movement of vehicles in certain directions that could either be dangerous or contribute to inefficient movements during high volume traffic periods,” as Benke explained.
Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall said of South Carolina Department of Transportation’s response to the traffic congestion that the both islands have already gotten a glimpse of this year: “The mayors of the beach communities are working on setting up a traffic management strategy session between local governments, law enforcement, regional planning and SCDOT” which will address a number of questions and concerns related to anticipation of, preparation for and responses to beach traffic congestion between Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island and Mount Pleasant.
Hall also wrote to Senator Chip Campsen following a recent meeting between the two that she plans to conduct a review that will include “a study of the various modal travel patterns in the area, peak travel demand patterns and operational constraints of the current network” and expressed a commitment to seeking “potential solutions to facilitate more effective movement along the corridor, including but not limited to additional lane configuration changes, signal synchronization, additional synchronization, roundabout installation and innovative Intelligent Transportation Solutions such as reversible lanes.” The review will involve input from the public, local government and other regional stakeholders.
Residents and visitors alike can monitor traffic in and around the islands on SCDOT’s website, 511sc.org, which provides footage from traffic cameras around the state, including SC 517 IOP Connector at SC 703, SC 517 IOP Connector at Rifle Range Road (temporarily unavailable at the time this article was written), SC 703 Ben Sawyer Boulevard NB at North Point Lane, SC 703 Ben Sawyer Boulevard SB at Center Street Extension and SC 703 Ben Sawyer Boulevard NB at Station 22 ½. SCDOT also offers a 511 app for Android and Apple products and a 511 telephone service that provide further route and traffic insight.
In addition to monitoring traffic levels to avoid peak times, Fragoso mentioned that other ways to move expeditiously to and from the islands during the summer include using the CARTA shuttle, which will travel between Mount Pleasant and IOP every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and downloading Berkeley Charleston-Dorchester Council of Government’s Beach Reach App.