Department of Transportation to remove trees from deadly span of Interstate 26

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To reduce fatalities and severe-injury crashes, the state Department of Transportation plans to remove trees in the median of Interstate 26 from Summerville to Interstate 95.

The DOT also plans to install cable guardrails in the center of the median after the trees have been removed from the nearly 30-mile stretch of highway in Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

In 2010, an analysis conducted by The Post and Courier determined that the stretch of interstate around Ridgeville had claimed more lives than any other part of the highway. Of the nine fatal wrecks in 2009 between Summerville and I-95, seven involved impacts with trees or roll-overs into ditches, records showed.

The $5 million project announced Friday will happen from mile marker 170, just east of Interstate 95, to mile marker 199 near Summerville.

“The general plan to improve safety on this two-county section of I-26 is to provide more recovery area for drivers who veer off the roadway,” the DOT said.

Currently, the distance from the travel lanes to the median tree line is 25 feet, DOT said.

The trees in the median are primarily pines with some hardwoods. The work would also prepare the stretch of median for future widening of I-26, DOT said.

I-26 in the project area has an annual average daily traffic count of 32,433 vehicles. The speed limit is 70 mph. From 2007 through 2011, 1,934 crashes resulting in 44 fatalities and 709 injuries occurred in the stretch of interstate. Half of the crashes were run-off-the-road accidents, the DOT said.

The crash causes were primarily distracted drivers and drivers who fell asleep. Other factors were DUI, speeding, driving too fast for conditions, tire failure, improper lane change and debris in the roadway, the DOT reported.

When the project is finished, the zone where drivers can recover from running off the road into the median will grow from 25 feet wide to 46 feet wide on both sides of the interstate, said Tony Sheppard, DOT director of traffic engineering.

The cable barriers will reduce fatalities, he said.

Sheppard said the DOT looked at leaving trees in place and installing cable barriers on both sides of the uncleared median, but that doubled the cost of the project to $10 million.

The timetable for the project has not been determined. Sheppard said the DOT must first obtain environmental permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Berkeley County portion of the project is ranked No. 1 on the top-ten priority list for interstate safety improvements. The Dorchester County section is ranked No. 3.

News of the DOT plan met with mixed reaction on the The Post and Courier Facebook page.

“I think it is a great idea!!! We have seen countless accidents and deaths due to people running off into the median and hitting the trees,” said Ovieda Diane Weir of Harleyville.

Mass transit advocate William Hamilton of Mount Pleasant expressed opposition to the project.

The $5 million could be used to finish the new bus and train station in North Charleston. The current bus station is an embarrassment and the train station is decrepit, he said.

“Before we squander five million irreplacable dollars on something which won’t move anyone further or better and has zero economic return to our region, we should have a public hearing,” he said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.

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