The Hwy 501 Fix

A Solution to U.S. Hwy. 501 traffic between Myrtle Beach and Conway

By Mark Sowers

November 2022

By far the most notorious road in Horry County, SC is the stretch of U.S. Hwy. 501 between Myrtle Beach and Conway. During winter months traffic is typically very slow through this area. During the summer, a drive that should take 10 minutes can often take over 40 minutes.

This is a fast-growing part of the county, with many businesses lining the highway, each with their own entrance. And each mile or so of the highway is marked by a major cross-road intersection. These cross-roads feed huge and growing residential areas and carry heavy traffic volumes to and from Hwy. 501. And it's these intersections that make driving Hwy. 501 so painfully slow.

To keep Hwy. 501 traffic flowing as best as possible, the traffic lights run on extremely long cycles, sometimes taking as much as 5 minutes to complete 1 cycle. This means traffic approaching Hwy. 501 may have to wait up to 5 minutes before being allowed to turn onto the highway.

The current RIDE III program (a local road-funding program) is scheduled to expand Hwy. 501 from 2 to 3 lanes. While this may slightly increase the highway's capacity, it still doesn't fix the much larger issue of the traffic lights. Because it's the traffic lights, not the width of the road, that cause significant delays.

Therefore the solution to Hwy. 501 congestion is not to simply add more lanes. The solution is to eliminate the traffic lights.

But giant interchanges at each major intersection aren't practical in this area. They take up much more room than is currently available. And when placed close together, they would end up blocking access to most of the businesses along the highway. (This is what happened in the Fantasy Harbor area just east of SC 31.)

Fortunately there's another way to eliminate traffic lights while still giving full access to the businesses along the highway. It's a novel design that takes the problem of multiple big intersections and uses it to its advantage.

Texas-style frontage roads with U-turns are designed for busy highways exactly like Hwy. 501, and they're used very effectively along almost every highway in fast-growing Texas.

With frontage roads and U-turns, the main flow of traffic along Hwy. 501 would use overpasses to fly over the major cross-roads. Meanwhile local traffic can still easily access all the businesses via the frontage roads. With significantly less traffic at the major intersections, the traffic lights can cycle much more quickly, saving everyone time.

But the real advantage of this design is that it moves the on- and off-ramps away from the big intersections, so these intersections take up much less room. Instead, the on- and off-ramps become 'slip-ramps' and are located between the major intersections. Here's an example of how they work.

Texas-style U-turn

Unlike most frontage roads in the Myrtle Beach area, Texas-style frontage roads travel in only one direction: the direction that matches the highway lanes next to it. Then at each intersection drivers can perform a U-turn before encountering a traffic light, allowing them to seamlessly turn around and head the other direction, with no delays.

Then between the major intersections (not at the intersections) slip-ramps allow traffic to gently transition from the highway to the frontage roads, and vice-versa. The spacing of the major intersections along Hwy. 501 is just right for this style of road design. At no point would a driver need to travel more than a mile before being able to make a U-turn.

The elegance of this solution is that it can be built entirely in the existing highway right-of-way. No additional land would need to be purchased. No businesses would be lost to eminent-domain takeovers.

But here's the best part: Just imagine how nice it would be to travel along Hwy. 501 from the intracoastal waterway all the way into Conway without hitting a single traffic light.

The image above is a mock-up of what this road design might look like in the Carolina Forest area. The upper image is the existing highway. The lower image is the proposed design. (See the complete image at the bottom of this page, or view full-screen, or download)

The red line is the path a driver leaving Legends Drive and headed towards Conway would follow. At first it seems like a hassle having to make a right turn out of Legends Drive and then a U-turn, just to head west. But when you actually clock it, the time-savings become apparent.

Currently someone headed from Legends Drive to Conway would wait at the light to make a left turn. If they happen to catch the light, great. But that rarely happens. Most of the time they end up waiting. And waiting. Sometimes for a long a 4 minutes before they can turn left.

Under the new system someone leaving Legends Drive would make an easy right turn onto a frontage road, which would be much less congested than the current Hwy. 501. Then just before hitting the traffic light at Las Palmas/Waccamaw Pines, the driver would take a dedicated U-turn lane, and with absolutely no waiting, pass under the highway and turn westbound onto the other frontage road.

Total added distance: well under 1 mile.
Total time: exactly 1 minute.

Yes. A one-minute guarantee to get to the same point that otherwise would have taken as much as 4 minutes if waiting to turn left at the traffic light. Then before Carolina Forest Blvd, they would take a slip-ramp onto the highway itself.

But the time-savings doesn't stop there. This driver would then pass over Carolina Forest Blvd., not needing to stop at that traffic light, saving an average of 3 minutes. They would then pass over (not stopping) at Gardner Lacy Rd., and then pass over Wild Wing Blvd., then over Singleton Ridge, then University Blvd. At each overpass this driver would save an average of 3 minutes (and significantly more during rush-hour).

From Legends Drive this driver would not hit a single traffic light, and could be in downtown Conway in 8 minutes, not the 20 to 30-plus minutes it can take today.

In the map below, zoom in and out to look at the detail. Pan left and right to see the whole image.

If you like what you see, let your local and state representatives, and SC-DOT know you want to see Texas-style frontage roads with U-turns along Hwy. 501.