A plan to add two, one-directional traffic lights near Windmill Harbour is gaining support among Hilton Head Island leaders who have previously opposed the idea of adding stoplights to U.S. 278 on Jenkins Island.
The game-changer: U.S. 278 would also be widened from four to six lanes from the foot of the J. Wilton Graves Bridge to Squire Pope Road on Hilton Head.
The plan was developed over the past year and completed in November by a consulting firm, which was hired by Beaufort County to address safety concerns on the unincorporated section of the highway on Jenkins Island. The town and the S.C. Department of Transportation have also been involved in the planning.
The widening of U.S. 278 would help prevent traffic jams at the stoplights, while also making the road safer for residents of nearby communities, including Windmill Harbour, said Darrin Shoemaker, town transportation engineer.
“After much review, we are convinced the widening will more than negate the adverse impacts of the signals,” he told the town’s Public Facilities Committee, which endorsed the $12 million plan Monday.
Each light would also only stop traffic going one direction:
▪ Eastbound traffic along U.S. 278 would hit a light at Blue Heron Point Road, which would allow westbound drivers to make U-turns or a left turn into nearby communities. Windmill Harbour residents would make a U-turn and then make a right turn into their neighborhood. Westbound traffic would continue to flow.
▪ Westbound traffic would hit a light about 500 feet east of Jenkins Road, allowing eastbound drivers to make a U-turn and enter the Hilton Head Harbor RV Resort and Marina or allow residents of Windmill Harbour and the other affected communities to head off-island. Eastbound traffic would continue to flow.
After much review, we are convinced the widening will more than negate the adverse impacts of the signals.
Darrin Shoemaker, Hilton Head Island traffic engineer
Shoemaker said the lights would be synchronized to the town’s coordinated signal system, except for during low-traffic times. The lights would change at intervals of two to three minutes. The estimated delay in traffic by 2020 at morning peak hours would be about 13 seconds longer than without the lights and the widened road, according to a consultant’s report.
The town has previously backed a proposal for a frontage road that would go beneath U.S. 278, with no traffic lights. That option would cost $14 million but would not include widening U.S. 278 from the bridges to Squire Pope Road. The state Department of Transportation rejected that plan in 2014.
The new proposal would cost about $12 million, with the county paying $7.4 million, and the town picking up the rest. Funding would come from a proposed 1 percent sales tax increase, or if that fails, a bond issuance, according to county and town officials.
The widening would make all of U.S. 278 six lanes heading on and off the island, with the exception of the bridges, which would one day be replaced, Shoemaker said.
The stoplights are backed by property owner associations for Windmill Harbour, Heron Point and Mariners Cove that have been clamoring for improvements to their dangerous intersections.
“There are times when you cross over 278 at peril of your life,” said Mike Garrigan, representing Windmill Harbour. “With the opening of the flyover, we’re going to have a problem that exacerbates itself.”
But the plan has some opponents.
Rob Bender, representing Sea Pines Resort, spoke out against the lights at the meeting, saying they would impede already busy traffic for visitors and employees, and it would lead to an increase in rear-end crashes.
“We need to be mindful that the right solution isn’t always the easiest and least expensive,” he said.
Some were also concerned about large trucks and RVs headed to the RV Resort being required to make U-turns near Jenkins Road.
The committee asked town staff to look into concerns raised at the meeting, but its members also said they supported the plan.
“This is not a plan that I love,” said council member Lee Edwards. “But the problems there are real and immediate. … We cannot delay this.”
Town Council is scheduled to vote on the stoplight plan March 1, just a week ahead of the town’s March 8 presentation before the county’s sales-tax commission, which is preparing a recommendation for the November ballot. Town and county officials said they hope to begin the project as soon as possible, but the timing would depend on the funding.