Legislative conferees have yet to make the big budget decisions, pending the General Assembly’s return to Columbia on June 18. But they did approve a small-yet-important proviso that requires the state Department of Transportation to get local approval before cutting down 30 miles of trees in the median of I-26.
The proviso recognizes the broad public opposition to the project. So far, the DOT has been virtually unyielding on the matter.
If the public’s objections to this project haven’t gotten the attention of state highway planners, you can bet that this legislative proviso will.
It states that the DOT can’t use state funds to remove the trees until approval is given by the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments.
Given the chance, the BCD Council should halt DOT’s heavy-handed approach to I-26, undertaken in the name of highway safety.
First District Highway Commissioner Jim Rozier of Berkeley County got an earful from an irate public early this year after the plan was announced. But he wasn’t successful in getting his fellow commissioners to alter it.
Clearly, the DOT is focused on doing the job as cheaply as possible by removing all the median trees and putting a protective cable barrier in their place.
Ultimately, the DOT wants to widen the highway to six lanes to accommodate the port-related truck traffic that is expected to increase when Charleston Harbor is dredged to handle the latest generation of big ships. And paving in the median is less costly than adding outside lanes. So clearing the median could be viewed as preparatory to that project.
But it doesn’t consider the cost of losing the scenic aspects of a highway that is the gateway to an area renowned for its natural beauty. Indeed, the Lowcountry landscape is an important element of the local tourist economy.
Who wants to travel between I-95 and Summerville on a six-lane highway separated by a concrete barrier down the center?
Further, the DOT plan fails to address the contribution that median trees make to safer driving by reducing the glare of oncoming headlights and by limiting the distraction of “rubbernecking” when an accident occurs in the opposing lanes of traffic.
The BCD Council of Governments includes members representing all local jurisdictions within the tri-county region. Presumably, they would give the issue the attention it deserves, providing for public input and considering alternatives for the DOT to consider.
Clear-cutting the median trees shouldn’t be an option.
There are scenic areas along I-95 where trees in the median are flanked by metal guardrails for motorist safety. That’s the kind of solution that the DOT should be contemplating on I-26 — not the cheapest way to provide safety at the expense of the visually pleasing aspects of this primary corridor.
So far, the DOT hasn’t been willing to give the opponents of its clear-cutting proposal a fair hearing.
This legislative proviso should ensure that the public’s objections are finally heard.