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Isle Of Palms Considers Own Connector Study, In A Rift With South Carolina Department Of Transportation

By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News

Visibly impatient with and lacking confidence in the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) and its executive director, the Isle of Palms City Council has asked city administrator Desiree Fragoso to explore the possibility of hiring a traffic engineer to study the recently revamped lane striping on the IOP Connector bridge. At its regularly scheduled meeting Oct. 26, the council approved Randy Bell’s motion to initiate the study by a 5-4 margin, with Mayor Jimmy Carroll, Ryan Buckhannon, Jimmy Ward and Kevin Popson agreeing with Bell. 

Councilmembers Susan Hill Smith, Phillip Pounds, John Moye and Rusty Streetman opposed the measure. Fragoso estimated that a full study could cost the city between $50,000 and $100,000. 

With no input from the city, SCDOT restriped the bridge in March, adding bike and pedestrian lanes on each side and reducing the center emergency lane from 10 feet to 4 feet. Bell said that when the council protested the move, Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall and State Sen. Chip Campsen promised that the state would fund a study of the bridge’s traffic, but that apparently hasn’t happened yet. Some Council members also felt slighted because Hall presented ceremonial “public beach parking” signs to the directors of the Charleston Area Public Beach Access and Parking Group and State Sen. Larry Grooms, who supported the organization’s efforts to keep the Isle of Palms from limiting parking for daytrippers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“My intention was to send a message to SCDOT that the city is willing to go it alone and that we do not have confidence in the secretary. We consider her political behavior to be an affront to this community,” Bell commented. “As a governor’s office appointee, she should be representing communities equally. There’s no evidence of her willingness to do that.” Carroll added that when Hall presented the signs to Grooms and the Beach Access Group’s directors, she was making “a very political statement.” “I feel SCDOT has not listened to us at all. We met with them numerous times, and I thought we were going down the same path. We don’t trust SCDOT,” Carroll said. Bell’s motion did not pass without opposition. Moye, for example, encouraged the council to wait for SCDOT’s study to be completed before taking any action. 

“Everybody wants the same thing here. How do we facilitate safe traffic both ways for pedestrians, bikes, automobiles and emergency vehicles?” Moye asked. “The study might reveal that what has been done is actually a perfectly viable solution that solves all the goals we care about.” 

Smith, meanwhile, questioned whether the city’s study would be taken seriously. “This can be viewed very negatively,” Smith pointed out. “I have reservations at this juncture because we’re upset about what we perceive as a political slight. We have a public relations problem, and I don’t think this necessarily helps us. I think this is premature and potentially pricey.” Pounds recommended waiting until the council’s November meeting before taking any action. In the end, Bell’s motion prevailed by the slimmest of margins. “When the Connector got restriped – very quickly and almost surprisingly and amazingly for a government entity – there was a lot of public consternation. There still is a lot of public consternation,” Bell said. “The only thing that’s been done so far is collecting data, which is somewhat automatic. But there’s been no scope defined and no purpose defined. So we’re going to be reliant on a study that has clear political bias directed at this island. I don’t find anyone that has a belief that we’re going to have an unbiased study.” At its April 27 meeting, the IOP Council voted unanimously to spend up to $15,000 to engage the service of an engineer to study the traffic situation on the bridge – “to have an engineer overlook and review the SCDOT study,” according to Carroll. The city hired Bihl Engineering of Charleston to handle that job. 

According to local attorney Blair Hahn, restriping the bridge violated the regulations of both SCDOT and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He said FEMA requires a dedicated emergency lane onto and off of barrier islands, while the concrete barriers beside the pedestrian and bike lanes aren’t high enough by SCDOT’s own standards. He added that the bike lane on the north side of the bridge empties into oncoming vehicular traffic. “It’s just a mess. Somebody will die. It’s just a matter of time,” Hahn said. In a related matter, Bell, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, reported on the beautification plan for Palm Boulevard, noting that Hall has worked with the city to make the recently-installed angled parking “not as ugly as it is.” He said removing the angled bumpers probably would be a bad idea. “I don’t think anyone, particularly the police chief, believes that removing the angled bumpers would be productive in the way that people line up and park in those spots,” Bell said, adding that “it’s not the most attractive thing that we look at every day.” Bell pointed out that an agenda item regarding live music was added “because our current ordinances do not line up with what is being permitted at Front Beach.” “It got twisted and placed on social media, and everybody got phone calls and got their hair on fire over something that, frankly, we were trying to do proactively to support the businesses on Front Beach,” he said. The Council also voted unanimously to direct the staff to put together a resolution asking the SCDOT to make the speed limit 25 mph on all streets, except those that already have lower limits. The speed limit would remain at 30 mph on Palm Boulevard. Streetman, the chair of the Real Property Committee, reported that progress on the new restaurant at the Isle of Palms Marina is “really coming along.” He said options for some type of elevator were still being considered. Fragoso pointed out that “no matter what option is considered, it is unlikely that it will be in place by the December opening date.” “We’re looking at something that could be retrofitted after the restaurant is completed and has started operations,” she said.

 In other action Oct. 26, the IOP Council: 

• Approved an ordinance allowing year-round surfing instruction on the beach; 

• Approved an ordinance temporarily suspending enforcement of packaging standards for businesses affected by global supply chain issues; 

• Authorized the consumption of beer and wine on Nov. 6, during the LOWVELO Bike Ride, which raises money for cancer research at the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center; 

• Passed a resolution authorizing the discharge of weapons, using blank ammunition, at the Blessing of the Veteran and First Responders on Nov. 6. 

The council’s next meeting will be held on a Wednesday rather than a Tuesday. It’s scheduled for Nov. 17, at 6 p.m.

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