Rozier to oppose I-26 median tree cutting at DOT Commission meeting
A plan to level nearly 30 miles of trees in the Interstate 26 median has drawn opposition from Jim Rozier, a state highway commissioner from Moncks Corner.
“I’ve gotten a bunch of feedback. Everyone says, ‘Don’t cut the trees.’ It’s a beautiful area through there, as pretty as an interstate can be,” he said Tuesday.
The DOT has proposed removing the I-26 median trees from Summerville to just east of Interstate 95. The reason for the $5 million project is to reduce fatalities and severe injury crashes, the DOT said.
Rozier said he plans to bring the issue before the state Department of Transportation Commission at its meeting Thursday in Columbia.
Bad drivers, not trees, cause wrecks on that stretch of I-26, he said. adding that speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol are the safety issues.
“I don’t think the trees are causing the problem. It just happens to be the trees that you hit,” he said.
As part of its I-26 safety project, the DOT plans to install a cable guardrail in the center of the median after the trees have been removed.
Leaving the trees in place and putting cable guardrails between them and the highway would double the cost of the project to $10 million, the DOT said.
The higher cost is because a more expensive guardrail system never before used in South Carolina would be required, said Brett Harrelson, DOT traffic safety engineer.
The slope of I-26 in that section, the narrow shoulders and short distance to the trees require a much more rigid, stronger cable guardrail, he said.
“Our standard system would not work,” he said.
Laura-Marie Luchini of Ladson said she opposes taking down the trees.
“That is a beautiful stretch of highway,” she said. “They’re putting the blame on trees. Trees are not magnets for cars.”
She advocated a ban on texting while driving. “It really boils down to personal responsibility in your automobile,” she said.
Luchini’s mother-in-law, Bonnie Luchini of Ridgeville, said she supports removing the trees for safety reasons. “I think it’s a good idea,” she said.
She said mile-after-mile of tall, thick groves of trees in the median can affect driver attention. “I just think you tend to lose interest when you get in those trees,” she said.
Harrelson said the DOT is in the process of preparing a contract for the I-26 project, which will require an environmental permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He estimated that the work could begin in the fall and take about year to complete.
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.
Currently, the distance from the travel lanes to the median tree line is 25 feet, DOT said.
If 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.
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.