The public outcry over plans to remove trees from a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 26 may be paying off.
A state budget proviso gives the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments the right to veto the S.C. Department of Transportation's plans to clear cut the median.
That item was not among Gov. Nikki Haley's budget vetoes handed down late Tuesday.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., has written a letter objecting to the plan, and local officials have agreed to hold a public hearing on it soon.
The state Department of Transportation has cited safety concerns to justify its plan to remove the trees from the median of Interstate 26 between Summerville and Interstate 95. Its proposed $5 million project would install cable guardrails in the center of the median after the trees are gone.
About 32,500 vehicles travel the stretch each day, and between 2007 and 2011, 44 people were killed and 709 were injured in 1,934 crashes there. Half of the wrecks involved cars running off the road.
But many Lowcountry residents and public officials have expressed concern that it would ruin the road's appearance — and that safety concerns can be addressed in other ways.
Susan Breslin of Folly Beach is among those who have spoken out against the plan.
Breslin said one of her first memories of South Carolina was driving from Charleston to Columbia in the spring — and she has been a big fan of the median trees ever since.
“I thought it was the most magical thing I had ever seen,” she said. “The trees were gorgeous and the smell of the cut grass was beautiful.”
The Council of Government will invite DOT officials to explain their plan, and the council also will allow the public to speak on the issue.
The date of that meeting has not been set, but it could be held next month, Council Executive Director Ron Mitchum said.
While the main issue is whether the trees should stay or go, Mitchum said council members might consider other alternatives.
“There may be some other possibilities. It's just a matter of talking through it,” he said. “I think this process may be helpful in making sure we look at all the different options.”
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said he worked to get extra review of the state's plans inserted into the state budget after he had trouble getting his questions answered.
“I just wanted the DOT to justify cutting down the trees. I wanted to see what were their alternatives to cutting all the trees and what the total cost would be,” he said. “They were not forthcoming with the information.”
Grooms said the comments he has received on the trees amount to a mixed bag.
“I've got some folks who say the trees should be cut because the trees kill people. I don't necessarily subscribe to that,” he added.
Sanford recently wrote to COG Chairman Larry Hargett to express his support for the council's review on the issue.
“I now work in Washington, D.C., during the week and there are a whole host of parkways in different corners of the metropolitan area that have trees surprisingly close to the roadways and yet are able to the handle traffic counts that in many cases are heavier than those experienced on I-26,” his letter said.
Hargett said he has not made up his mind about the trees. When the council members discussed the issue earlier this week, few spoke up for or against the idea. The council is made up of dozens of elected officials from the three counties and their 27 municipalities.
While the trees have their defenders, a Post and Courier analysis of fatalities along the full length of Interstate 26 in 2010 found a heavy concentration along the rural stretch in Berkeley and Dorchester counties — an area this newspaper dubbed “the death zone.”
Some stretches around Ridgeville and Harleyville had three times more fatalities per mile than other sections. Mile per mile, it has more fatalities than sections through North Charleston and Columbia — even though it has one-third the traffic.
The S.C. Highway Patrol stepped up enforcement as a result, and the number of fatalities had ebbed by late 2010. The state also began looking into other safety improvements.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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