An S.C. Department of Transportation project to improve the intersection of Windmill Harbour and U.S. 278 won't include an access road that would have replaced left turns that residents say are dangerous.
Instead, the department will alter turn lanes to improve safety for drivers entering the highway from the community near the bridges to and from Hilton Head Island.
DOT engineers decided last month to reject a proposal to build a new section of Blue Heron Point Road that would connect Windmill Harbour's back gate to westbound U.S. 278, Beaufort County and Town of Hilton Head Island officials said Monday.
The road would have connected to the north side of the highway near the base of the J. Wilton Graves Bridge.
Engineers said the proposed entrance would not have given drivers entering the highway enough time to accelerate before reaching the bridge, according to Darrin Shoemaker, town traffic engineer. They also worried that those entering the highway wouldn't be seen by oncoming traffic traveling around a curve.
Attempts Monday to reach DOT representatives were unsuccessful.
The department, however, agreed to several traffic improvements.
Plans call for lengthening an acceleration lane for right turns out of Windmill Harbour onto the highway. DOT crews also will push the left-turn lane into the community closer to the U.S. 278 median, to improve sight distance for those turning left out of Windmill Harbour.
As a result, left turns from Gateway Drive to eastbound U.S. 278 will be eliminated.
"Right now, if a large service vehicle (turning left into the community) blocks your view, you don't have a clue what's behind it" when merging westbound onto the highway, said Jack Lee, a Windmill Harbour resident.
The project is expected to cost $500,000 and be finished by the end of the year, according to Ginnie Kozak, planning director at the Lowcountry Council of Governments.
A Hilton Head Island subcommittee on Monday endorsed the project, with Councilman George Williams calling it "a step in the right direction."
The DOT's decision, however, doesn't satisfy residents who are eager for change at the intersection. In response, they said Monday that they have another solution that would eliminate two precarious left turns across two lanes of highway traffic. They have hired a Columbia-based engineering firm to design that proposal.
DOT "obviously didn't agree with the plan we put forth to create the road," said Ernie Lindblad, president of the Windmill Harbour Property Owners Association. "But I think our revised plan will be the final piece of the puzzle. It allows all three of the neighborhoods (near Windmill Harbour) to go each way on 278 without turning left."
Currently, there are three median crossovers on the mile-long stretch of U.S. 278 on Jenkins Island: at Blue Heron Point Road, the westernmost intersection; Crosstree Drive, the entrance to Windmill Harbour; and Jenkins Island Road. Drivers can make left turns onto westbound U.S. 278 at Blue Heron Point and Crosstree.
Unlike the proposal rejected by the DOT, the new one would extend the access road to Gateway Drive, across the highway from Windmill Harbour, allowing residents to turn right onto the highway after going under the bridges via Blue Heron Point. A retaining wall would separate the access road from the wetlands between Gateway and Blue Heron Point.
The plan would close the Blue Heron Point crossover and eliminate the left turn onto westbound U.S. 278 at the Crosstree intersection.
Residents argue that making the road longer would give merging drivers enough time to accelerate before entering the highway. It also would allow oncoming traffic to see those entering the road before the curve, they say.
The firm is finalizing plans, and Lindblad is pitching the idea to county and town officials, he said.
Ultimately, because the highway is state-controlled and maintained, the project needs DOT approval.
"We're cautiously optimistic that this will be the one," Lindblad said.
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.