Council debates SCDOT tree removal plan on interstate I-26
The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments hosted a heated debate on the adoption of a South Carolina Department of Transportation tree-clearing project Monday.
The I-26 Median Safety Project, which was first announced in October 2012, suggests removing trees that are growing in the median of I-26 between I-95 and Summerville to reduce the number of fatal crashes in the area.
After fielding a lively discussion and going through several motions, Council Chairman Daniel Davis concluded the meeting by forming an ad-hoc committee that will work with SCDOT officials to gather more information on the project and additional alternatives to the ones proposed. The committee will present their findings at the next Council of Governments meeting, he said.
SCDOT Director of Traffic Engineering Tony Sheppard presented the existing safety alternatives – to either remove the threat or shield drivers from it – during the meeting. SCDOT will be giving the same presentation again during a public hearing at Summerville High School on Aug. 1 from 5 – 7 p.m.
According to Sheppard, SCDOT performed a crash study from Jan. 2007 through Nov. 2011 on the 29.6-mile corridor. During that time there were 1,934 automobile crashes recorded. Of the crashes, 709 involved injuries and 44 were fatalities, which are unusually high numbers, he said. The statistics showed that 50 percent of the crashes involved cars driving off the roadway; twice as many hit the median rather than the right side of the road.
The study found that the crashes were caused by three factors: speeding, drunk driving, and drivers who are falling asleep or distracted at the wheel.
In order to reduce the number of fatalities and accidents in the area, Sheppard proposed two alternatives to the council.
One plan, which would remove the safety concern from the roadway, involves clearing all of the trees from the median and installing the SCDOT standard three-stranded cable wire to the center of the median. This plan has an estimated cost of $5 million.
The second proposed alternative involves shielding drivers from the safety concern by removing some trees and installing a high-tension cable around the area. This plan has an estimated cost of $10 million.
The federal government will provide funding for the entire project, Sheppard said.
In total, the project – which is referred to as the Median Cable Rail Project on I-26 on the SCDOT website – will require “clearing, grubbing, dressing and grassing” 23 miles of median, according to Sheppard.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, although not a member of the body, attended the meeting and addressed the members with his opinion.
“People come here because it has a different look and feel to everywhere else and the gateway [to the area] is the I-26 corridor coming in,” he said.
Rep. Sanford continued, suggesting SCDOT use the George Washington and Baltimore-Washington parkways in the Washington, D.C. area as an example. Both parkways feature wooded medians and stone dividing walls.
“If it's good enough for D.C., it's good enough for home,” Sanford said.
Former U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel, Jr., also spoke at the meeting, reminding the members that their decision could affect local politics.
“Beauty and the environment is a non-partisan issue,” he said. “Year '14 is an election year and I don't think the tree-cutting candidate is going to fare too well.”
Members of the council echoed the same sentiment, noting that many had heard from constituents who unanimously wanted the trees to remain.
“[The accidents are] not the trees' fault, and it's not most drivers' fault. Issue the bad drivers helmets if you want to, but please don't cut down our trees,” said Nancy Corbin, a member of the general public who noted that she and her family have driven the debated stretch of highway since 1987 and have never gotten into an accident.
Other council members chimed in with similar opinions.
“Which tree has broken the law? Trees are not causing accidents, and cars aren't causing accidents. It's people that are causing accidents,” said member Mathew Profit. “Cutting down a tree is not going to stop people from drinking. Cutting down a tree is not going to stop people from falling asleep at the wheel.”