International Drive hearing ends after four days of testimony

International Drive hearing ends after four days of testimony

COLUMBIA, SC (WMBF) - The hearing on International Drive ended Monday, one full day longer than the hearing was originally scheduled to last.

Monday's witnesses mostly testified about the need for International Drive as it relates to public safety and traffic congestion in the area.

Horry County Emergency Management Director Randy Webster said it would be easier for ambulances to access neighborhoods along Highway 90 if International Drive was paved, with an improved total response and transport time of 10 to 15 minutes.

Webster also told the judge International Drive could act as an alternative hurricane evacuation route if Highway 501 and 31 are backed up with accidents.

"It would be another access that otherwise people would be at a standstill," he said. "It's critical due to the time involved of trying to evacuate people during a hurricane."

South Carolina Department of Transportation Highway Commission Chairman Mike Wooten also testified about traffic congestion in the area, including how Highway 501 is considered to be at a functioning level of "gridlock."

"Highway 501 is already at a level of service F," Wooten said. "Actually, it's probably about an F-. I think it's 30 or 40 percent over capacity right now."

The heavy load is only expected to worsen, according to Steve Gosnell, director of Horry County Public Works.

Gosnell and Wooten also were questioned Monday about emails exchanged between themselves and Nelson Hardwick, among others.

The petitioners, South Carolina Environmental Law Project, asked about possible political pressure influencing the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to change the plan for International Drive from 2010 to 2013 to exclude bear tunnels and high fencing.

They asked Gosnell about various emails sent within that time frame between himself, former County Administrator John Weaver, current County Administrator Chris Eldridge and former Rep. Nelson Hardwick expressing the county's desire to remove bear tunnels from the plan, including possibly paying DNR $2 million to purchase additional land in order to not require the bear crossings.

DNR Director Alvin Taylor testified last week, saying no political or financial pressure played into his department's decision to change the plans. He said he didn't sell out to Horry County and wouldn't do that to anyone in his position.

Horry County Chairman Mark Lazarus said it was DNR's idea originally to remove the bear tunnels from the plan in favor of a reduced speed limit.

Attorneys for Horry County and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control tried objecting to multiple emails being taken into evidence on the basis of relevance, most of which were denied.

Stan Barnett, Horry County's attorney, told the judge he thought the petitioners were trying to smear the county staff, who he said were only trying to save money because the cost of the bear tunnels and fencing would be more than $3 million.

Gosnell said he doesn't know what Hardwick was doing for International Drive, but he said it's typical for legislators to get updates on projects.

"I think the fact that I'm associated with that offends me to some degree professionally," Gosnell said.

The petitioners said they were just quoting what's in email documents from the county.

The petitioners also asked similar questions about emails to Wooten. Wooten said it's common for counties to express their needs to state legislators and he was simply facilitating those communications by sending an email to Hardwick on behalf of the county in March 2013.

The judge's decision could take months to be released.

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