HICKS COLUMN: DOT has never seen anything as annoying as a tree
Hold up on that clear-cutting, DOT.
The folks at the Statehouse say you have some 'splaining to do before you go all Paul Bunyon and chop down every single living tree between Summerville and I-95.
You may recall that back in February the state Department of Transportation board voted to buzz-cut the median through the I-26 Death Zone and install a cable barrier. Which would make our road look like any number of generic interstates.
A good number of people oppose this, and with good reason. It would be ugly.
Local DOT Commissioner Jim Rozier tried to put a stop to the chainsaw massacre, but the fix was in. Luckily, state Sen. Larry Grooms — another Berkeley County guy, like Rozier — is moving legislation that would require the DOT to justify this decision to a panel of lawmakers before the first tree is cut down.
So, basically, there's hope for common sense yet.
Double the cost?
There's no doubt, that stretch of I-26 is dangerous.
More than 40 people died there between 2007 and 2011, and half of those accidents involved running off the road and, presumably, hitting a tree.
Cable barriers are a little more forgiving than pine trees, and the state has strung roughly 5,000 miles of these cables in the past decade. So far, 23,000 cars have hit them.
Way to keep it between the lines, South Carolina.
But the cables save a lot of lives, so it's good that the DOT is looking out for motorists. The cost of putting up a cable barrier for this 30-mile stretch of road and cutting down the trees is $5 million. To put up two cable barriers, one on each side of the median, would allegedly cost twice as much.
Really, even if you only have to cut down some trees — and not a million of them?
“If it makes sense to cut down the trees, by all means do it,” Grooms says. “I just get the feeling there's more to it. Just explain, DOT, is all we're asking.”
That's not unreasonable.
The I-26 dirt track?
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who's running for governor again, has made a campaign issue out of the trees.
Of course, he lays this at Gov. Nikki Haley's doorstep, and says we need more state troopers instead of clear-cutting. That may be true, but that's not quite the issue here.
Haley's office has basically stood behind the DOT, saying she trusts that the department studied the situation well enough to make the right call. You could read that as a warning to the DOT too.
We'll see if Haley has a strong opinion soon, because Grooms' legislation has cleared the Senate and will likely make it through the House. Then maybe we'll get an explanation from the DOT.
Grooms remembers the DOT clear-cutting I-26 just south of Columbia about a decade ago. They bulldozed the median and then went back and planted more trees.
This time, can we skip steps 1 and 2 and keep things the way they are?
Put up cable barriers, by all means, but don't turn the gateway to the Lowcountry into a dirt track.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.